Tuesday, June 24th, 1986
Hutch woke in darkness. The internal alarm clock he'd gotten along with his medical degree told him he had roughly twenty minutes until the mechanical clock on his nightstand began its harsh, buzzing ear assault. Seconds after he blinked his eyes, he felt the sexy pressure of a thumb pad smoothing his brow. He rolled onto his side, rubbing his eyes until his vision adjusted.
"Little early for you to turn in, Starsk," he told his bedmate.
"I'll probably get up again." Starsky drew his hand away, replacing that brow-stroking pressure with a moist kiss to Hutch's forehead. "Thought you might like waking up to me insteada that alarm clock."
Hutch smiled. "Let's see: naked Starsky or a buzzer that brings back uncomfortable memories of my high school's bell system? Good call. What time's it?"
"Nine-thirty on the dot." Starsky thumbed the curve of Hutch's shoulder.
"Fifteen minutes until the alarm. You want a little something, babe?"
Starsky's bright-eyed grin showed more amusement than horniness. "With you going in for a double starting at eleven? You gotta be kidding. I get you off now you'll yawn through the first two hours of your shift."
"Sad to say, that's probably true. On the flip side, one advantage of leaving the thirties behind is the longer trip to the point of no return. We can make out for a few minutes."
"Fine by me, but you're in charge of putting up the stop sign."
Lightly thumping Starsky on the nose, Hutch faked outrage. "Make me do the dirty work."
Starsky pretended to nip at his fingers. "Point is, you'll actually do it. My dick doesn't know the meanin' of stop signs when it comes to you, and you know it."
"And I have some tight-fisted grasp on control?" Hutch knuckle-scratched through the curlier chest hair just below Starsky's collarbone.
"What you got is a healthy fear of Dr. Mannigan."
Hutch pushed closer and pecked Starsky's lips. "Meaning?"
"Meanin', your balls could get tighter'n a wetsuit and harder'n shot put, and you still wouldn't lose track of time and risk being late for shift."
"I'll have to prove you wrong about that someday." Hutch chuckled against Starsky's open mouth. They kissed slowly, then harder and faster, then pulled away to nuzzle ears, bump noses.
They had banned frontal groping below the waist during make-out-only sessions, but Hutch got a charge out of dragging fingernails down Starsky's back and up again to squeeze the nape of his neck, and Starsky helped himself to a handful of Hutch's ass.
"Yeah, man, squeeze me," Hutch pleaded, going in for another kiss. "Makes me think of Saturday night, when you were up my ass. Love it when you put my legs over your shoulders and really drive into me."
Starsky pulled back and rolled over to stare up at the ceiling, panting. "No fair, dirty pool. You didn't say anything about bedroom talk."
"What's the big deal?" Hutch asked innocently.
"Aw, come on, you know what. Trip to the point of no return gets a whole lot shorter when you talk like that in your bedroom voice."
Hutch grinned. "Got you to put up the stop sign, didn't I?"
"You lousy cheating--"
Hutch bent over him and kissed him quiet...for about thirty seconds. Starsky broke away with an overdone pout that made Hutch want to "glove up" and push his cock through those gorgeous lips and thrust and thrust between their tight seal until he lost his mind.
"New rule," Starsky said. "No bedroom talk when we can't follow through."
"Sure thing. Call me in the morning before you leave for the Academy?"
Starsky smiled. "Have I ever missed calling you around the halfway mark in one'a your double shifts?"
"Nope, can't think of a single time. You have the ethics lecture tomorrow?"
"Who's your guest speaker this session?"
"Dunno. This is the one class that Commandant Richards insists on choosing guests for, and he doesn't give me the heads up. I won't know until I get to the classroom."
"Damn. No telling then. I hope it's not some overzealous IA bum."
Starsky exaggerated a shiver of disgust. "You and me both, partner."
"All right, I'm getting up before I forget about alarm clocks and traffic and being on time for shift, and suck you off."
"Hutch! What'd I just say about bedroom talk?"
Hutch scooted out of bed before Starsky could pop him one in the shoulder. He laughed all the way to the bathroom for his shower.
Wednesday, June 25th, 1986
Phone cradled between ear and shoulder, Starsky spread peanut butter on his toast and hummed through the rings on the line. The aroma of freshly brewed coffee had his nostrils flaring, his eyes wide open, and slowly but surely the cobwebs were receding, but he would never in a million years be a morning person.
"County Memorial Medical Center," said a brassy feminine voice.
"Maureen." Starsky drummed up a faux Irish accent. "Top'a the marnin' to yah."
"Save it for a leprechaun, Starsky. I know who you really wanna talk to, and he's at the main nurse's station last I saw him. Hold on."
"Don't 'darling' me, David Starsky, or I'll tell Hutch you've been flirting again."
"You wouldn't get me in trouble like that."
"No takers, Maureen." He took advantage of the stretchy phone cord to back over to the fridge for the strawberry jelly he'd forgotten, and hummed his own tune to drown out the tinned Carpenters' instrumental when Maureen put him on hold. He nearly dropped the jar at the first words from his lover.
"Starsky, you've been teasing Maureen again? You might stunt that child's psychosexual growth, you realize that?"
"Why, that damned redheaded finkette. Child? Gimme a break. She's only, what, five years younger than us? Hell, she came outta the womb a smart mouth."
Hutch laughed. "God, it's good to hear your voice."
"I've had rougher, but not many."
"Ouch. Don't like the sound of that. Any chance you'll make it home after your shift ends this afternoon?"
Hutch let out a loud breath. "I'd give myself a sixty-percent chance."
"I'll take those odds. Missed you during the night."
"Same here, buddy. Listen, I just spotted the chief of gastroenterology getting off the elevator. That might be the consult I called for a patient who came in during the night."
"Gotta go, huh? Love you, Hutch."
"You too, Starsk. Good luck with your class; I hope it's a speaker you can live with."
"I'll settle for one I won't wanna put on ice." With a quick good-bye, he side stepped over to the wall-mounted base and re-cradled the receiver, knowing his PB-and-Jam toast would taste five times better now that he'd had his morning dose of Hutch.
Better than any cup of coffee in the world.
Built like Dobey at his heftiest, Frank Reid strained the limits of his knee-length lab coat, and had a tense floridity to his face that included the scalp under his sparse gray comb-over. Reid had always struck Hutch as the poster boy for a ticking time-bomb coronary. Halfway to the nurse's station, Reid paused and turned, showing off a narrow green-and-black tie that barely covered the gaps on either side of his white shirt's button placket.
"Dr. Hutchinson, you called for a GI consult?"
"Yes, I have a patient in Observation Four. I'm surprised to see you, though. I thought it'd be one of the residents in your service."
"I'm filling in for Dr. Monahan. Family emergency. Presentation?"
Trying to recall the salient facts without the patient's chart, Hutch fell into step with the department head. "Twenty-six-year-old male presented around two a.m. His girlfriend brought him in when his abdominal pain became unbearable, no appreciable relief with maximum-dose Tylenol. Patient reports intermittent abdominal discomfort, diarrhea, nausea, loss of appetite, and vomiting spells over the last two weeks. Abdomen is tender on the right side but there's no rigidity or guarding. Appendectomy at seventeen."
"Hmm. Well, let me have a look at his chart and then I'll examine him. With those symptoms and duration, he's looking at a likely admission. You prepare him for that?"
Hutch nodded. "I told him not to expect a quick bounce out of here, Doctor."
Starsky stopped right on the threshold of his classroom and had to swallow a groan. He'd never liked this classroom with its terrible acoustics, one small window, and a faint odor he was certain came from the decomposing body of a rat trapped inside the wall. Not his favorite room for an all-day session. All that paled in comparison to the nauseating sight that greeted him.
"I don't friggin' believe this," he muttered.
The guest speaker turned from his post in front of the window. "Believe it, Starsky. I'm here as a personal favor to Commandant Richards."
"Good for you."
Starsky had little contact with the head of the Academy, but he knew he would never be counted among the man's friends. Old school in both policy and opinion, Richards was Chief Ryan's crony, and tolerated Starsky's new ideas and avant-garde method of instruction only because they yielded undeniable results.
Starsky took a sip of coffee from his 1986 Ford travel mug -- a gift from Hutch, who'd shrugged and blushed when reminded that the Torino didn't have a cup holder. Um, good. The mug's stainless steel inner liner kept his java tongue-burning hot. He'd had two cups at home and was working on his third, but a vat of his best brew wouldn't bolster him through a whole day of this.
"What are you doing here this early?" He swung his briefcase on to the table beside the wooden tabletop lecturer's podium. "Your part of the class isn't until after lunch."
"I'm here all day, Starsky, at Richards's request."
A spy, then. Christ. He would be trapped in a smelly classroom with a much larger rat than the one responsible for the room's odor. Starsky did some quick math in his head. The cadets were due in from morning PT by eight. He would have them for three hours before lunch; after that, the guest speaker had an hour, and then the cadets went to afternoon PT or field training, and Starsky got them again for the last two hours of the day. Six hours of classroom time with a weasel! Starsky nearly retched.
So much for Hutch's good luck wishes.
Hutch met Dr. Reid at the door to Observation Four. Studying the chart, Reid glanced at him with a curt nod. "I see you ordered an abdominal ultrasound."
After a quick peek in the room to nod and smile at the patient and his girlfriend, Hutch shut the door and motioned for Reid to move a little ways down the corridor. "Yes."
"Looks like there was no sign of a gallbladder about to give us trouble."
"No, and ultrasound showed a normal liver and spleen."
"White count's elevated. No long-term corticosteroid therapy. No history of drug use. No recent travel outside the United States. No tattoos. I want to do more testing. Best bet right now is complete bowel rest and--" Reid drew his finger down the chart's face sheet, and cleared his throat. "I think we can treat this more conservatively to start with. I advise discharging him with a script for phenergan to control nausea, a clear liquids diet with slow advancement to BRAT, and a follow-up with his family doctor in a week."
Hutch looked down at his feet, certain his jaw had dropped all the way to the floor between his mocs. "What?" He lowered his voice. "What changed?"
"Pardon me?" Reid frowned at him.
"You came out of the room talking complete bowel rest and testing, and after half a breath, you're suggesting discharge?"
"Dr. Hutchinson, you're a resident in the ER. I'm chief of gastroenterology. You called for a consult because you needed my expert opinion. I'm giving you my expert opinion."
"Thank you for the reminder, Doctor. I also noticed the sudden direction shift in your expert opinion after you had a look at the face sheet. Did you notice that he's self-employed and uninsured? Is that it?"
"Don't play detective with me, Hutchinson; you no longer have the badge for it!" Reid's red face now had purplish splotches, veins bulging along his neck. "Did I say anything about health insurance? Has insurance coverage surfaced once in our conversations regarding this patient?"
"No." You're too slick for that. "That young man doesn't have a family doctor. Until recently, he's been the picture of health. He didn't even come in here until he got so sick he couldn't stand up straight, and his girlfriend understandably panicked."
"Then I'd suggest he get a primary physician. He's not so healthy now."
"Oh, you picked up on that, huh?" Hutch valiantly resisted the urge to roll his eyes. "He has a concerning temp, he can't keep down more than a few sips of ginger ale, he's in pain, and I've had to give him two liters of IV fluids, but you want me to discharge him with phenergan and diet restrictions? Clear liquid isn't full bowel rest."
Reid cocked his head, his expression nasty. "I was unaware that you'd opted for a GI specialty, Dr. Hutchinson. I thought your chosen specialty was emergency medicine. Was I mistaken?"
"You're damned right I'm specializing in emergency medicine, and to me, that patient in Observation Four is an emergent case."
"I disagree. I believe his symptoms can be managed at home and his follow-up testing arranged on an outpatient basis."
Thereby saving Memorial a private-pay admission. Well, you can keep your eye on the hospital's balance sheet, Reid, and I'll keep my eye on the patient. Hutch schooled his expression until he could feel his own mask of neutrality settle over his face. "Thank you for the consult, Dr. Reid. I'll follow up with Dr. Mannigan before I discharge." And Hell will freeze into a ski resort before I discharge that patient!
With a smug quirk to his lips, Reid nodded. "You do that. Trevor knows I wouldn't jeopardize this GI service's excellent reputation with a haphazard discharge."
Starsky carried his tray of burger and fries, side salad, and low-fat milk to his office. After three hours of feeling the eyes of a weasel on his every move, he couldn't face the crowded café. The temporary café was a poor substitute for the main eatery, destroyed in the February fire and under new construction, but food was food. Starsky's stomach rumbled threateningly at him as he balanced his tray along the length of his forearm, his fingers curled over the edge to bracket it, and unlocked his office door.
Inside the shelter of his office, he took a deep breath. He'd always battled mild claustrophobia, but nothing had left him feeling this pinned-in since his quarantine in an isolation room at Lincoln Hospital nearly ten years ago.
He spread his lunch bounty on his desk with a brief flashback of Dobey doing the very same in the captain's old office at Metro. He had to smile. Just as Edith had tried numerous times to curb Dobey's appetite for junk food, Hutch stayed on Starsky's case about watching cholesterol, empty sugars, and eating his veggies. Starsky looked down at his meal. Yeah, he was a lovesick sucker, when he opted for a burger instead of a cheeseburger, a small order of fries, milk instead of root beer, and a salad with more cucumbers, carrots, tomatoes than shredded cheese and dressing.
I may not live to see the ripe old age of 148 you're pushing for, lover, but I'll be damned if I make an early exit on you, like Dobey almost did to Edith, because I can't say no to two cheeseburgers in one sitting! For you, Hutch, I can even choke down salad.
Thinking of Hutch made him long to hear that loving voice. He popped a fry into his mouth and reached for his phone, doubting he would get a few minutes with Hutch in the middle of the day, but who knew? Maybe after his hellish morning, the universe would throw some luck his way.
"County Memorial Medical Center," chirped Maureen.
"Is this the world's sassiest stool pigeon?"
"Ew-scray ou-yay, Starsky."
He fork-speared a cherry tomato and slid it whole into his mouth, tucking the tiny vegetable away chipmunk-like inside his cheek. "You talk like that to Huggy?"
He got a feminine snarl from Memorial's ER receptionist. "How many times do I have to tell you, I won't satisfy your perverted curiosity about me and Huggy. So, rough day at the Academy?"
Astonishment made him nearly swallow his forgotten tomato down the wrong pipe. He chomped down on it, gulped milk, made a face at the yucky taste of milk and tomato juice swirled together, and thwacked himself in the chest. "Maureen, is Memorial training their receptionists to be psychic now or something?"
"Get real. You had that must-talk-to-Hutch-now tone in your voice. Sorry, Starsky, no dice this time. He's in a trauma with Mannigan," she lowered her voice to a whisper, "and it looked ugly."
"Damn. Okay, look, don't tell him I called? I don't want him worried over nothing, and he won't get hold of me after lunch. I'll be in class the rest of the afternoon."
"You're the boss."
"I wouldn't tell Huggy that, if I were you."
Laughing, Starsky hung up and grabbed his burger. He'd eaten one tomato. He could indulge in the burger and fries before he had to face the rest of his salad.
"Yes. Your fatigue is due to anemia, Mr. Brace. Your hemoglobin is abnormally low, causing you to feel the unusual tiredness. Also, your--" Hutch stopped at the sound of the door scraping against the floor.
Ah, hell. Frank Reid. Hutch had known this confrontation was coming. He swiveled toward the door. "Yes, Doctor?"
"See you in the hall, please?"
"In a minute--"
"Now, Dr. Hutchinson."
Hutch held in a sigh of frustration. He gave the patient a quick smile. "I'm sorry. This will only take a minute, and I'll be right back to explain the rest of your findings."
Out in the corridor, Hutch glared at the specialist. "This better be important. I was in the middle of discussing a diagnosis with that patient."
"You tell me, Dr. Hutchinson. Is your future at this hospital important? That patient in Observation Four was admitted after I told you to discharge him to home!"
"Yes. He should be dispositioned to Med/Surg by now."
"What the hell gives you the right to go against my clinical opinion?" Reid's face was doing that weird purpling thing again. "Not much for the chain of command, are you, Hutchinson? Well, let me tell you something, mister: contradicting the orders of a department head isn't the way to make chief resident!"
Hutch had to bite back a laugh. "I guess it's a good thing I don't give a damn about making chief resident."
"Right. You're one of Trevor's trauma fellowship candidates. You think as long as you stay in good graces with Dr. Mannigan you have that fellowship in the bag? Think again. Mannigan's recommendation for the fellowship goes to a vote by the executive board. The department chiefs of this hospital sit that board, Hutchinson. That means I have a seat on that board. You better hope, if you even get Mannigan's recommendation, that the vote isn't close, because I'd vote for a drooling chimpanzee over you!"
Hutch smiled. "That might concern me if one of the other candidates was a chimp."
"Your sense of humor doesn't impress me. You can keep that patient on Med/Surg until Thanksgiving if you like, but if you think for a second my service will--"
"Someone in your service will follow up with that patient in consultation, Frank, or you'll be explaining to Hamilton why they won't."
Reid whirled at the sound of Trevor Mannigan's voice. "I should call your bluff. Our chief of staff has a better understanding of what it takes to successfully run a hospital than you."
His slate-gray hair perpetually neat, lab coat pristine over mismatched scrubs, Mannigan stood tall and still, a statue of authority. Only the faint sweat stain showing through the green scrub top over his chest showed that stress and exertion caused heavy perspiration in Mannigan just as it did in the mere mortals who worked with him. Hutch thanked whatever higher power ruled the universe that Mannigan's left eyebrow arched in silent disapproval at Reid and not him.
"If you're referring to Hamilton's focus on economic realities, I'm sure you're right," Mannigan said. "Even so, you're about to cross a line with this case. I'm not bluffing, Frank. You know me better than that. Dr. Hutchinson told you he would follow up with me. He did, and I agreed with his concern that the patient wasn't stable for discharge."
Reid shot both Hutch and Mannigan a look of loathing and stormed away, lab coat flapping. Hutch finally expelled a sigh.
Mannigan gave him a sharp-eyed frown. "You should never have questioned Frank Reid to his face. Next time you disagree with a department chief, smile and nod, then bring your concerns to me. If you don't know how to do that, ask Bambi to show you how it's done. She's had years of practice smiling and nodding at arrogant doctors."
Hutch immediately tried to remember if Nurse Bambi had ever "smiled and nodded" at him. He gave up on that train of thought in favor of something more important. "I won't hide behind you, Dr. Mannigan."
Mannigan raised his left eyebrow again. "Don't be absurd, Hutch. It's not a question of hiding. Did your captain let you do face-to-face battle with the police chief?"
"Not often," Hutch admitted.
"Well, then, it's not your place as a resident to do battle with Memorial's department heads now. That's my place. I have the authority, and I can weather the fall-out. When you make Attending, you can take more weight on your shoulders. You just made a lifelong enemy out of Frank Reid. That man holds a grudge with both hands and he'll never let go of it. No matter what the findings are on that patient, Reid won't believe you saved him from a malpractice lawsuit. He'll only remember you crossed him."
"What about you? You didn't just make an enemy of him?"
"Reid has never liked me. The difference is he has to respect me. He's under no such obligation with you." Mannigan left with a headshake that cut worse than a shout.
"Damn," Hutch whispered.
"All right, that's it for today, ladies and gents. Mandatory notes check tomorrow so stop by my office after Handgun Retention." Starsky scanned the rows of smartly uniformed young men and women, trying to ignore the large, pacing figure at the back of the room. Most of the cadets had their gazes raptly fixed on Starsky, but Cadet Keith Leitner continued his intense scrutiny of the leak-stained ceiling.
Starsky raised his voice just in case a few phrases might break through the cadet's trance. "I can tell at a glance if notes are complete. Here's another tip: notes tend to vary. If I see two notebooks word for word identical, I'll know someone's been copying. That means two of you in hot water. If you didn't take notes today, own up to it. Go on, get outta here. You're done for the day. Change into civvies and go to the beach, get out in the sun."
He laughed as cadets stampeded thunderously for the door. The man pacing the rear of the classroom jerked to a halt and swiveled so fast that his mustard-yellow suit jacket flapped up, showing off his mustard-yellow vest. Starsky hastily turned his eyes from that potentially damaging sight and smiled in sheer relief at Cadet Leitner when he'd meant to give his student a stern frown.
Leitner continued to drift vaguely toward the door. Starsky approached him with the soft-footed stride he would use to catch up to a sleepwalker. He had unsnapped the cadet's side holster and had his fingers on the unloaded firearm before Leitner paused, swaying slightly like a car getting the shimmies in idle. Starsky whispered his name to ease the transition from one level of alertness to another. Fat lot of good that did him, when the other person in the room clomped over with an elephant's tread. Leitner jumped, visibly twitching, his eyes panicky in a way Starsky had never seen from the cool-in-crisis cadet.
And damn Commandant Richards's insistence on active-duty police personnel attending Academy lectures as guest speakers. If not for that damned policy, Simmons and Babcock wouldn't have been anywhere near the Academy that day... Starsky had to fight the audio memory of gunfire, cadet shouts, and the sickening cough-grunt Simmons made before crumpling to the ground. He shot Captain Hobart a vile look. Hobart scowled at him but kept his mouth shut.
Starsky gentled his expression before he turned it on his student. "Cadet Leitner, do you realize you allowed me access to your firearm just now?"
Leitner was strictly regulation from polished black shoes to starched uniform shirt and short haircut. He only showed his internal distress in his unsteady voice, "Sir, yes sir."
"You or your partner would likely be dead if you allowed that to happen on the job."
Leitner's tan complexion suddenly had a gray tinge. "Sir, yes sir."
"Cadet, some instructors would recommend immediate expulsion from the Academy for a mistake like that! You understand?"
The gray tone in Leitner's skin paled to ashen. "Sir, yes sir!"
"Be glad I'm not one of them. I allow for one mistake like that. One, hear me? You don't get three strikes when it comes to firearm safety. Did you get a word of today's lecture?"
"Sir, no sir, Instructor Starsky. My notes won't be complete."
Starsky nodded. "I'm giving the same lecture next Tuesday to the part-time students. It's an evening class. Come to that one, take notes, we'll call it even. Listen, what happened here in February? That kinda thing doesn't always fade easy. Don't give yourself a hard time if it's stickin' with you. Think about stopping by to see the Academy counselor. A lot of cadets did. I've heard them saying it did them some good. You know, to talk it out."
Leitner shook his honey-brown head vigorously. "No, sir, you're right; that went down like swallowing razor blades, but that's not bothering me today, sir." He met Hobart's perpetual scowl, and abruptly resumed communion with the ceiling.
Starsky cleared his throat. "I'm listening."
Leitner risked eye contact again. "It's my dad, Instructor Starsky. You remember I told you he's a photojournalist in Central America? Last night Mom got a phone call from Dad's most recent contact in Honduras. Apparently, Dad went chasing off after some hot button story, and he hasn't been seen or heard from in two weeks."
Hobart made a scoffing noise in his throat. Starsky gave him another silent, shut-up-or-else warning. For Leitner, he had an at-ease-cadet smile. "You didn't sleep a wink last night and you thought you could shrug it off long enough to come in today?"
"Yes, sir. Yes, that's about it."
"Leitner, cops don't get a free pass on the streets. We're human, but we have to learn control over personal life problems, 'cause if we take those problems on the street and freeze up in the wrong situation, we end up in body bags. Or our partners do, and believe me, that's worse than ending up on a slab yourself."
Leitner nodded crisply. "Sir, yes sir!"
"I'm sorry about your dad. I know it'll be a rough wait-and-see thing, trying to get info through the embassies and all. I hope you get word quick; good news at that. Look, I'll count you present today. Handgun Retention is dicey. Training Officer Clifton won't appreciate you in there with the shakes. If you can't get a full night's sleep, call my office number first thing in the morning, and I'll arrange with Clifton for you to take his class with the part-timers next month. You'll graduate on time. Deal?"
With a tentative smile poised on the verge of a grin, Leitner eagerly shook his hand. "It's a deal, sir. Thank you, Instructor Starsky." He nodded at Hobart. "Captain."
Hobart grunted at him.
"Keith!" called a feminine voice, and a stocky girl with tight-to-the-scalp braids leaned halfway into the room. "There you are. Freak a sistah out, why don't you?"
Starsky smiled. "Cadet Holm."
Gracie Holm, Leitner's class partner, looked a little flustered. "Uh, sorry to interrupt, sir. Got out to the commons and realized Keith wasn't with the rest of us."
"And you came back to check on your partner? Nothing wrong with that, Cadet."
"I'm fine, Gracie," Leitner told her. She tilted her head to give him a probing sideways stare of skepticism. He nodded. "Instructor Starsky knows. About Dad."
"See!" She play-popped him on the shoulder. "Dumb-butt here didn't think he should say anything to you, sir," she informed Starsky. "I told him you were righteous about Mama's surgery that time. See you tomorrow, sir. Come on, Keith, I want me some sun!"
With a shrug, flushing, Leitner dashed into the hall after her. Starsky rushed to gather his class materials into his briefcase. He was itchy in his blazer and button-down, uncomfortable in slacks instead of his preferred blue jeans, and if he made tracks, he could get in a few hours of sunshine himself. Better than that, he had a sixty-percent chance he would find Hutch at home unwinding after a sixteen-hour ER shift.
Already tasting Hutch-kisses on his lips, Starsky whisked the special eraser across the dry-erase board, all the time aware of Hobart staring a hole in his back. Unwilling to fantasize while a libido-killer like Hobie remained in a five-mile radius, Starsky slapped the eraser down on the board ledge and turned around.
"Let it out, Hobie, before you bust in a million pieces all over my nice clean classroom."
"That's Captain Hobart to you, Starsky. Dobey let you and Hutchinson get away with calling me 'Hobie' and insulting my rank. Insubordination, that's what it was. You don't have Dobey to hide behind now. You have to deal with Commandant Richards, and he doesn't approve of you any more than I do."
"Great. Terrific. Now we got that cleared up, why don't you buzz off and let me finish up in here? Or you got something to say I might actually wanna hear?"
Hobart's piggish face scrunched into victorious glee. "I'd already planned to have a chat with Richards about your lecture today, but now I have something else he needs to be aware of. Playing favorites is unprofessional and unbecoming an Academy instructor."
"Playin' favorites?" Starsky battled a wave of nausea. Memorial didn't need a stomach pump. One whiff of Hobart's mixture of aftershave and body odor could do the trick. The man had to wear three-piece suits in June in Southern California.
"You gave that cadet just now a free ride on carelessness with his sidearm, daydreaming in class, and not bothering to take notes. You should keep that soft spot for blonds at home, Starsky."
At the insinuation, Starsky gave him a narrowed-eyed glare that made intelligent men scream for mommy. Hobart was obviously too stupid to know he should be scared. Starsky eased off the glare, saving it for someone who mattered. He pitied Hobart, actually. Rough to be color blind as well as stupid: Leitner wasn't blond. Not the kind Hobart meant. "You should be glad, very, very glad I don't pay bullshit like that any attention."
Hobart looked torn between frowning and sputtering. "Bullshit? You won't think it's bullshit when I take it to Richards. He'll wonder what Cadet Leitner did to earn that special treatment."
"Don't let your tongue make threats you don't have the balls for, Hobart. I won't sit still for slander."
"Go ahead and sic a lawyer on me, Starsky. See if you have a career afterward."
Starsky gave Hobart the dark, silent stare he'd reserved for felons and incompetent federal agents in his street days. "Do I look like I need some three-piece suit to solve my problems?"
Hobart poorly concealed a flinch. "Now you're threatening me."
"If you feel threatened, that's your problem, Hobart. Where we got a problem is if you're seriously accusing me of inappropriate conduct with my cadets."
Hobart looked away. "No."
"Didn't think so. Leitner is fourth or higher in his class in everything but Vehicular Evasive Maneuvers, so yeah, I cut him some slack today. He's not the only one. You heard Cadet Holm just now. Couple weeks ago I didn't let her behind the wheel in Intermediate Pursuit Driving 'cause her mother was scheduled for brain surgery that afternoon. Last thing I needed was a busted-up cadet and a totaled patrol car. These are human beings, Hobart, not robots."
"Maybe you'd be better off in social work, Starsky. Or teaching kindergarten."
"Why? 'Cause I show a little understanding?" Starsky clicked his briefcase locked, snatched it off the wobbly instructor's desk, and elbowed past Hobart into the corridor. "Well, tough shit, Captain. You're a guest speaker. I'm a senior instructor. This is my turf, and you don't get to tell me how to handle my cadets. If these kids don't learn humanity here, who'll teach them to show humanity out on their beat?"
Hobart stomped down the hall alongside him. "Maybe that attitude explains why you're teaching those future police officers to distrust their fellow cops. You want them to cozy up to the goons on the street and spend the rest of their time hunting dirty badges, is that it? I was so sickened in there I could hardly give my own part of the talk."
Nodding a greeting at a passing instructor, Starsky stopped in the middle of the hall and gave Hobart the benefit of his full, furious attention. "Were you listening in there? The class is Advanced Ethics in Law Enforcement. What was I supposed to talk about? Tiddlywinks? Look, you wanna sit in on a class where I teach how to kick ass and take names, come by my Arrest Procedure or Suspect Confrontation sessions. That class today is all about how to be a good cop, a clean cop, the kind of cop that doesn't trample all over the justice system to get the job done."
"Hey, Starsky, you got a sec?" called Instructor James Gibson from behind them.
Starsky turned with a smile for the gray-haired counter-narcotics veteran. The man had earned every single gray hair, racking up cases with Narcotics Division in the Las Vegas PD that would curl the toes of hardened DEA agents. "Jim, hey. What can I do for you?"
"Just wanted to let you know your suggestions for my Narcotics Investigations lecture really did the trick, man. I think three of the hardest sells in the class actually gave me their undivided attention today. I expect good results on the exam."
"No problem, glad to hear it." Starsky nodded as the instructor passed on down the hall. Out of the corner of his eye, he spotted someone else he needed to talk to and pointedly ignored Hobart's foot-shifting fidgets and disgruntled mutterings. Starsky called, "Clifton!"
In dark rifle range gear and combat boots, Clifton was a retiree who hadn't lost one ounce of muscle or the sharpness of his teeth. The former SWAT officer paused in his glance-through of the bulletin board announcements and flashed a grin at Starsky. "'Lo, Sarge."
Starsky shrugged off the annoyance of Hobart lumbering behind him, and joined the field training officer at the board. "Hey, listen, Clifton, lemme give you a heads up. Cadet Leitner washed out completely in my class today."
"Doesn't sound like Leitner." Surprise sharpened the FTO's voice.
"Nope. He'd had some bad news at home. Just between you, me, and your sidearm there, his dad is some kind of reporter down in Central America. Sounds like he's stumbled into a nasty mess. Leitner's got more'n enough on the ball to know people don't stumble out of messes down there nearly as easy as they stumble into 'em. Get me?"
"Got you. Tough break for the kid. What can I do?"
"Far as your class tomorrow goes, I offered him an out, but you know Leitner. It'd take the bubonic plague to keep him out of class. If he shows up still looking vague and shocky, keep a close eye on him with the firepower; maybe encourage him to make up the class with the part-timers next month, that's all."
"Sure thing, Sarge, will do. Thanks." With a parting smile, Clifton clapped Starsky on the shoulder and headed down the hall whistling some generic rock tune.
Hobart grunted. "Why does he call you 'Sarge'?"
"It was my rank on discharge from the Army, and when I left active duty with the BCPD. Other'n that, I dunno, Hobart. Why don't you ask him?"
He wished Hobart would. Clifton could smell blowhards half a mile away with the wind in the wrong direction, and the FTO's favorite food was blowhard tartar. Starsky started off toward his office, hoping Hobart could take a hint and vanish.
"I'm not through with you, Starsky."
"Talk while you walk then, Hobart, I got places to be."
"Like where? The beach? That's another thing. I doubt Richards would appreciate you telling those cadets to hit the beach after class."
"They're full-timers, Hobart. They're in class from eight to five, five days a week, six months straight. Today that meant five hours listening to me, and an hour pretendin' to listen to you. After that, they need a couple hours of daylight. They don't need to forget the outside world they'll be serving and protecting after they graduate from this cop factory."
"You have no respect for this institution. I'll ask you again. Where do you get off making the BCPD out to be a sewer of corruption? When I came through the Academy, my instructors didn't feel the need to slam other cops in their lectures."
"Did I name anyone specific? No." Starsky rounded the corner, a tight right turn on a dime, disappointed when Hobart didn't stumble into the wall. "You're right. Used to, nobody wanted to admit cops could go bad, or start out bad. Guess what? I wish to hell someone would've told me and Hutch we'd run up against badge-holding criminals, 'cause the first time we did, we were thrown for such a loop we could've been killed. To this day Hutch won't speak the name of the rogue cop he had to kill in self defense. You remember the Stryker case? Veteran detectives on the homestretch to retirement who murdered a small-time dope peddler execution style, and tried to pocket a million dollars worth of cocaine for resale."
Hobart fidgeted with his high, tight collar, scratching at his tie knot, radiating discomfort. "That's part of on-the-job training for rookies, learning what it's like in the real world. They don't need you hitting them in the face with it here."
"Why not? I'm here to train these people to be the best cops they can be. They need to know a badge doesn't always mean someone trustworthy. They go out there with blind faith in the Blue Wall and they'll set themselves up for disaster. If you'd paid attention you'd've heard me telling them how to spot solid cops, too. They'll need to know who's solid so they can go to them if they run up against dirty badges."
Not one for direct physical confrontation, Hobart tried to glare Starsky down. "You're just bitter because you can't be a real cop anymore."
Hobart would know something about that, since he'd never been a real cop. Starsky had reached the enough-is-enough point as well as his office door. He gave the knob a savage twist and pushed the door open with such force that it slammed against the wall and jarred a framed picture loose. Pointedly ignoring the crunch of frame and glass, he entered the room with icy, deceptive calm concealing a rage that would have a hardened criminal pissing himself in fear. Even Hobart, insulated by obliviousness, hesitated before crossing the threshold, and shot a nervous look up and down the hall.
"Get in here!" Starsky snarled at him. "I don't have all day, and I'm not doin' this dance with you in the hall." Hobart did look nervous then. "Don't worry, Hobie. I wouldn't literally dance with you if you offered me a restored '63 Avanti R-4 with dual superchargers." Hobart eased into the room. Starsky slammed the door shut behind him, taking childish delight in the captain's visible jump. He dumped his briefcase in his secondhand swivel chair and glared at the pest in his office. "What's this really about?"
Hobart went through his elaborate tie-straightening, vest-smoothing ritual that seemed to give him some composure. "Bob Martin is a friend of mine. He hasn't been the same since you did whatever the hell that was you did to him in February."
A chill skittered along Starsky's skin as it did with each mention of the unfortunate instructor who had accidentally opened fire on the Academy commons that fateful day in February. Fuck. Just when he thought he'd gotten through one more day without having to relive every single one of those agonizing minutes, some asshole had to go and shove the whole mess into his face!
"What I did," Starsky said in his deepest voice, the words halfway trapped in his rage-tightened throat, "was disarm Martin before he could add cadets to the casualty list. He's a friend of mine, too. Good cop, helluva guy, top-notch instructor. He couldn't help that 'Nam flashback, and he has to live with knowing he put those bullets in Jeff Simmons's chest. That's why he's not the same. Hell, who would be?"
"I'm warning you, Starsky. You're not fit to be an Academy instructor. You're a loose cannon, and that's not even touching on your unfit personal life. Richards wants you out, and so do a lot of other high-ranking officers in the department. Here's a heads up for you. Your days here are numbered. If I were you, I'd polish up my resume."
Starsky folded his arms over his chest and tried to look bored. "Is that a threat? You'll have to do better'n that to scare me. I went toe to toe with the best that James Gunther could dish out, and I'm still here, still blowing the dust off fossils like you. Think you can play a little one-on-one with me? I seriously doubt you got the game."
Hobart's jaw twitched. His face flushed. He turned and slammed out of the office.
Starsky exhaled noisily, squenching his eyes shut. He heard the annoying drone of an insect and realized it was Hobart's voice in his head, stuck on rewind....
You're just bitter because you can't be a real cop anymore.
Starsky breathed deeply the fresh air of his nice, clean, vacuumed home. Then his nostrils twitched from the tang of sweaty laundry. Hutch had shed lab coat, scrub top, and t-shirt right after he got in the door, the smelly culprits still draped over the couch. That meant a hellish shift jam-packed with traumas, and Mannigan cracking the whip until Hutch was so ready to flee that he didn't bother to shower and change into street clothes in the physician's locker room. On those days Hutch bent over and showed his ass to the hospital policy of leaving his medical duds for Memorial's laundry service. Even then, Hutch usually made it to the bedroom before ridding himself of the hospital gear in preparation for a hot shower.
Living together meant compromise. Hutch let him eat in bed; Starsky overlooked misplaced laundry. Starsky didn't keep a TV in their bedroom; Hutch didn't leave dishes in the sink. After close to seven years, they had ironed out most of the domestic wrinkles.
Why this unsettled feeling? Starsky couldn't shake it. The drive home from the Academy, music blaring from the Torino's new sound system, hadn't dulled it. The out-of-the-way detour by Hutch's favorite take-out place and the twenty-minute wait for fresh French Onion soup hadn't distracted him from it.
Couldn't be the seven-year itch, Starsky told himself. He wasn't getting restless legs in his love life. Hell, no. If he enjoyed battling thirty more minutes of killer traffic after a long day at work just to get his partner's favorite take-out meal, he still carried a brightly flaming torch for the guy. Flaming. Starsky started to laugh out loud before he caught himself. Yeah, he'd come a long way. Now he found that funny, and if someone dared to call him "flaming," he probably wouldn't hurt the dickhead. Much.
Okay, so he also knew stopping at Café Martinique would net him a fantastic Hutchinson blow job later that night. That wasn't the only reason for his errand of culinary mercy. He also loved seeing that tiny smile of surprise on Hutch's kissable lips. Whatever the cause of this unsettled feeling, it didn't have jack-shit to do with Hutch.
Grateful for the certainty of that, Starsky dumped his briefcase down on the sofa and scooped up Hutch's hard-worn garments. He resorted to a tiptoe down the hall to their room. One tantalizing glimpse of Hutch, and then he would take their dinner to the kitchen and wait for his exhausted lover to wake up in his own time. He peeked in their room, expecting to see Hutch tangled in the sheets and deep in the much-deserved sleep of an overworked physician.
Sudden dread weighed Starsky down, a dull heaviness in his chest. Had Hutch suffered through the all-time worst kind of shift? One with multiple-fatality traumas? Hutch often turned insomniac after one of those nightmare ER stints, and went for a run when he was too mentally tired to notice a box van bearing down on him. Hoping for a different explanation, Starsky flung the dirty laundry to the floor and doubled back to the kitchen to drop off the take-out before initiating a search. One look in the fridge had him breathing easier about Hutch's state of mind. He smacked his lips at the bulging San Ortiz Cantina bag's nose-tickling aroma of taco sauce. His favorite take-out. Two minds with one thought. Hutch definitely had a massage in his future.
Starsky shoved the Café Martinique bag in beside San Ortiz's and snatched two bottles of Gatorade. Armed with lemon-lime thirst quencher, he crossed the galley kitchen and glanced through the window over the sink. He laughed out loud.
Hutch lay stretched out on his back in the middle of their fenced-in yard.
Eager to be close to his partner, Starsky hurried outside without bothering to change out of his Academy dress clothes. The slam of the backdoor's screen behind him triggered a full-body flinch in Hutch, jolting the magazine spread across the sunbather's face. Tucking one bottle in the crook of his arm, Starsky bent over to retrieve the fallen reading material. Journal of the American Medical Association. On Hutch's other side a catty-cornered stack of The New England Journal of Medicine and Science lay forgotten. Starsky dropped the Journal issue down on the stack.
Hutch squinted up at him, blinking. A smile curved his lips. "That's a sight for sore eyes. Instructor Starsky, you make that outfit look good."
Starsky tried not to drool over the sight for his sore eyes: Hutch, bare to the waist, and from the waist down only a tissue-thin pair of running shorts. Trails of sweat down his smooth chest needed licking clean. Risking grass stains, Starsky knelt and kissed Hutch's muscular abs, letting his tongue follow the rivulets of sweat up to nipples that peaked just for him. His guy took care of himself; the workouts and runs snagged between shifts at Memorial paid off. Hutch closed his hand around the back of Starsky's head, applying gentle pressure. The taste of skin, the salty, coconut sweatiness only he got close enough to Hutch to taste, filled Starsky's mouth, sped his pulse, hardened his cock. This made better electrolyte-replacement than Gatorade. He smiled at the weird vocabulary he'd picked up, living with a doctor. Hutch was softly murmuring now, and Starsky raised his head and leaned forward to take the kiss Hutch offered, thanking his lucky stars that the vigilant physician hadn't added sweat and spit to the No Exchange list.
"Coppertone sunscreen mixed with sweat makes your skin taste like macaroons." Starsky handed over a bottle of the sports drink. "Why're you out here catchin' a tan with JAMA for a sun visor instead of sacking out in our bedroom? One of those days, babe?"
Opening the Gatorade and taking a long sip, Hutch's pained frown answered clearly for him. "Bambi came in last night when I did. She was pulling a double, too. By this morning she was whimpering for mercy. When I left this afternoon, Mannigan told all the trauma fellowship candidates to stay out of his sight until tomorrow night, third shift."
Starsky took a refreshing gulp of the salty-tart beverage. "Including Ms. Perfect, what's her name? Candace, Carol--"
"Carmen. Carmen Moreno. Yeah, her too. She's a nice lady, Starsk."
"Right now she's your competitor for that trauma fellowship, Hutch. Don't expect me to like her. I don't care if she has the kindness of Mother Teresa and Tina Turner's legs."
Possessiveness sparked in Hutch's glare. "When have you been checking out her legs?" Starsky's gotcha wink earned him a swat to the back of the head. "You're evil, picking on an overworked insomniac like that. You wait. I'm too tired to kick your ass now, but just wait." Starsky grinned at the idle threat. Hutch sighed, tried to turn it into a yawn and failed. "I also went to war with the chief of gastroenterology."
"Well, sheesh, Hutch, if you gotta rumble with the bigwigs, couldn't you pick one that doesn't specialize in poop and puke?"
"What the hell does that have to do with--" Hutch shuddered. "I don't want to know what just went through your mind."
"What made you rattle your sabers at the guy?"
Hutch drank down a third of his Gatorade before answering. "I had reason to believe he was judging a patient's acuity level differently because of lack of health insurance."
"I don't know much about that sorta thing, but isn't that supposed to be illegal, unethical, something nasty that ends in -al?"
"In a perfect world? Yes. In the real world of medicine? You'd be surprised at the ability of business-minded doctors to cover their asses and find loopholes. I'm not saying his skill as a physician didn't get him the position of department head, but you can bet that keeping an eye on the hospital's bottom line probably helps keep him there. God, I just want to forget the whole damn place for a little while, but I can't get it out of my head."
Starsky knew how to offer the best distraction. Rolling his still-cool Gatorade bottle back and forth against his forehead, he searched his mind for an argument starter. "You couldn't find anything better to do with your insomnia than sunbathing with a medical journal plastered to your face?"
Weariness in his movements, Hutch lifted his shoulders off the ground, resting on his elbows. "In the interest of domestic harmony, I thought about doing laundry, but the washer's on the fritz again. I didn't feel like heading out to the Laundromat."
Aha! His key to the nirvana of bickering with his partner. "What, it's bubbling over with half a scoop of detergent, or doing the rocketa-rocketa dance loud enough to wake the dead in China?"
Hutch gave him what he wanted: a smile, dimmer than usual but unmistakable. "Both."
"I thought you were gonna call the repair guy."
Hutch's smile gained some heat on its way to a glare. "Me? I thought you called him!"
"O-ho no. I'm not blowing a hundred bucks for a two-bit handyman to tell me the thing has a defective water fill valve or broken suspension springs. I was all for fixing it myself, but you had a medicine man panic attack about me electrocuting myself or lopping off my fingers."
"Well, seeing how much luck you had last year with that lemon of a lawnmower you bought--"
"It wasn't a lemon!" Starsky argued. "It just needed some TLC. Some finesse."
"And about a pint of your blood," Hutch shot back. Smiling brighter, he reached out, corralling Starsky with a warm palm around the back of his neck, squeezing, drawing him forward into a kiss. "Nice try, but it won't work this time," he said against Starsky's tingling lips, flicking his tongue out for tantalizing licks in between words. "Picking a fight over household matters won't take my mind off Memorial. Not today."
"Okay, well, speaking of food other than lemons, there's a bag from Café Martinique in the fridge, keeping that nice bag of San Ortiz's company. They look good together. Why don't we take them out for a double date in our living room with a good movie?"
Hutch chuckled, pressing his forehead to Starsky's. "We're saps, both of us. Thanks, partner, but that won't work either, not now. Maybe later. How was your day?"
Starsky shrugged. "So-so."
"Uh-uh." Hutch tilted Starsky's head down farther for better access, and Starsky felt the caress of Hutch's cheek through his hair. He would gladly sit still--or turn himself into stone if necessary--for as long as his lover needed to strop against him and rub away all of the outside world's nastiness. "You had that look on your face. If you weren't so worried about me, you'd be in the garage going ten rounds with my punching bag. What went down at the Academy today?"
"You'd never guess who the guest speaker was."
"Was it some IA stuffed-shirt after all? Don't tell me you had to contend with Simonetti."
"Worse than Simonetti? Impossible."
"Hobart? Bull-in-the-china-shop Hobart? The Hobart who should've had his badge dropped into an incinerator after he nearly got us killed on the Hilliard case?" Hutch pulled back, sliding his hand from Starsky's neck down to knead his shoulder. "You're kidding. The only course he could teach is Turf Squabbling Incompetence 101."
Starsky laughed. "Don't let that slip around Commandant Richards. He'd probably put it in the course lineup. Nah, it was Hobie all right. Doing his best pompous windbag act. Having him in my class was bad enough. After it was over, he raked me over the coals for being a lousy instructor, betraying the Blue Wall, and ruining Bob Martin's life. Promised me a career train wreck, with Richards driving the train."
Hutch frowned. "You don't sound all that concerned."
"Aw, come on, Hutch. This is Hobie we're talking about. He's not exactly the E.F. Hutton of the BCPD. His fleas might listen when he talks, but no one else bothers."
"No-o," Hutch said slowly, "but I imagine he's got more pull now that Dobey's retired, and even you've been saying Richards is looking for an excuse to cause you trouble. Here's someone whose formal complaint might be that excuse Richards wants, but you just sound ambivalent toward the whole thing."
Shit! Living with someone who knew him inside-out had its occasional disadvantages. That knowledge coupled with Hutch's professionally honed skepticism gave Starsky nowhere to hide. He hated the thought of hiding from Hutch, but he needed time to figure out for himself what was missing in his life, leaving him with a hollow place and the itch to fill it. Unfortunately, years away from police work hadn't dulled Hutch's skeptical edge. With that deceptively casual stare, Hutch could still see through evasions the way he used to hear the insincerity in a witness's sobs or the lie beneath a felon's double talk. That talent for interrogation probably allowed Hutch to extract deeper truths from patient histories. Good for patients, but Starsky wasn't ready to see panic when Hutch got down to the buried truth of Starsky's restlessness.
Too late. Cautious silence had given him away as easily as a neon sign.
Concern evident in the tense set to his mouth, Hutch drew his hand away from Starsky's shoulder and sat upright. "Are you happy at the Academy? Would you even care if Hobart made good on his threat?"
"Of course, I'd care!" Starsky snapped. "We're talking about my livelihood. It's what I do."
"But not who you are, is that it? What's going on, Starsky?"
Starsky could hear words behind words, too. In that language only they could speak to each other, Hutch was pleading: Please don't tell me you miss what we used to do. Don't tell me you want to walk a path I can't walk with you. Would he want that forsaken path back again, if somebody offered it to him? Starsky focused his mind's eye. His brain refused to conjure the image of a Torino without Hutch in the passenger seat, such a reality so skewed it didn't even belong in science fiction, much less the natural world. But the Academy had also felt like an alternate reality since February, a reality Starsky couldn't make sense of, blend into, any longer.
"I wish I didn't get hit with that mess in February every time I turn around, that's what's going on," Starsky snarled, anger at Hobart flaring bright-hot again. "Maybe I'd be happier if I didn't see Jeff Simmons getting blown away whenever I cross the commons."
Great. He needed a padlock the size of Hutch's sport sedan for his big fucking mouth. Why did he have to go and drag that into the discussion? Hutch had his own nightmare memories from that day. Starsky had seen the bullets connect; Hutch had faced their irreparable damage in the trauma room. As usual, Hutch gave Starsky's pain precedence over his own. Strong arms were around him instantly, and Starsky gave in to their warm, insistent tugging, until Hutch had resumed his sprawl on the grass, offering a human mattress. Starsky turned his face to Hutch's neck, soaking in the comfort of tender, knowing hands rubbing his back through the blazer.
"That's what I'm hearing, isn't it?" Hutch asked, relief softening his voice. Starsky winced. "You want things back the way they were at the Academy, and you know they won't ever be. Not completely. I understand. What do you need right now, Starsk?"
Starsky's empty stomach spoke for him, rumbling against Hutch. "My gut's vote is for dinner. I could go for a nap, and I know you could."
"Later, nothing. You need your sleep, Hutch."
"I won't sleep for a while yet. I have too many what-ifs from Memorial chasing each other around my head. I've got tomorrow to sleep. What do you really need, Starsky, all things equal and my sleep deficit not in the equation?"
"Quality time with your naked body and a back-bending orgasm for each of us to start, then dinner, then we catch a few Zs."
"Uh-huh. Try that again without the spare-Hutch's-feelings filter."
Starsky had to laugh at that. He blew a raspberry against Hutch's throat to distract him from his real intent. Rising up he inched down Hutch's body, blowing puffs of air on sun-heated skin until he'd made it safely past the waistband of the ultra-thin running shorts without protest from the man beneath him. He glanced quickly around their quiet backyard, their privacy intact courtesy of the high fencing, and began slowly peeling down the shorts.
"Where's my big guy," Starsky whispered, bending over and pretending to peek below the borderline of those shorts. "Huh?" He spotted welcome movement: Hutch's cock stretching, shifting to greet him. "There he is." Starsky kissed the hot, velvety shaft, lingering against the slippery skin. He drew his lips up to the crown, opening his mouth, wanting one quick suck....
Hutch palmed the back of his head again, but the order conveyed in the touch was clear: Stop. "I didn't bring a rubber out here with me. Did you?"
Starsky held in a complaint. Recent blood work had yet again given them reason to take deep, lung-bursting breaths of relief, and monogamy meant even more to them than their partnership had when they walked the dangerous back alleys of the city. Even so, Hutch insisted they stick to precautions they had used before that all-important "negative" on the lab reports. Starsky rarely argued with Hutch just being Hutch. That same legendary protective streak once upon a time had him warning Starsky to be careful when Hutch had to run a gauntlet of back alleys in the sniper sights of kidnapper-murderers. God knew, he had his own mile-wide protective streak when it came to Hutch.
Sighing, he tucked his favorite "big guy" away, patted the front of Hutch's shorts, and stretched back out on his Hutch mattress. Hutch enclosed him in those warm arms again, stroking his back. "Before you tried to pull a fast one with your sexy mouth, you were about to tell me what else you'd really like to do tonight."
"I wouldn't mind riding by Babcock's place later, but you're too exhausted for a social call."
"Checking on one of our own who's hurting the way Babcock has to be, that's not a social call, Starsky. It's much more important than that. I'm up for it, but do you think he's ready to see me? The funeral was one thing. Face to face in his living room is another."
"Babcock's not dumb, Hutch, and Sally's had time to karate-chop sense into him. He knows you couldn't do more'n you did. You told me what Mannigan said. Simmons was all but gone when you went into that trauma room. I'm no sawbones, but when I saw where he took those slugs, I didn't think he'd leave the commons outside of a body bag."
Hutch gave a weird, sudden jerk beneath him. Too slow to pin his partner down, Starsky went for a roll on the grass as Hutch pushed roughly out from under him and scrambled to his feet, stalking away, leaving the Gatorade bottle to tip over on the slightly uneven ground and start a neon-yellow stream.
Shit! Starsky railed at himself. Did he have some kind of virus that caused a million brain cells to disintegrate whenever he opened his mouth? Of all the dumb-ass things to say! Wasn't enough to replay Hutch's memories of February, he had to shove Hutch into a time warp that dumped him in 1979. Starsky picked himself up off the ground and rushed to intercept Hutch's aimless pacing at their yard's fence line.
"We need a pool," Hutch said when Starsky reached him.
"Sure, just as soon as I win the Publisher's Clearing House sweepstakes."
"I'm serious, Starsky. It'd be great after marathon shifts at Memorial to have our own pool here in the backyard. Nothing outlandish, just long enough to swim laps in. Huggy could probably hook us up with someone who'd cut us a break on the labor and materials."
"Can he hook us up with a new backyard?" Starsky glanced around their tiny square of earth. "You put a pool back here, and we'll feel like our little castle has a chlorinated moat. Hutch, listen, I'm--"
"That's not a half bad idea, buddy."
"What? A chlorinated moat?"
"A new backyard, moron. New house." Hutch gestured at their humble abode, a flick of the hand barely distinguishable from a flip-off. "Just this afternoon I was thinking a change might do us good. We've been here over five years."
"And put a ton of work into the place."
"Which would help us with the sale. This place fit our needs when we moved in. It's a decent neighborhood, nicely situated between the Academy and the Medical Arts campus. But the house isn't really my first choice in floor plans. Too closed in. Too--"
"Too suburban, three-bedroom rancher?" Starsky suggested.
"Exactly! I'd like a place with higher ceilings, more open space, more personality."
"You don't wanna wait until you make Attending before we jump into something like that? I mean, a move, putting the house on the market, hunting for a new house, all that takes time. Lots of time. And no matter how smoothly everything goes, it's still a hassle."
"Just something for us to consider." Hutch's gaze darted here and there, never settling, never resting on Starsky, as if afraid the weight of his stare might pummel Starsky into the ground.
"Hutch, I'm here. Standing here with my foot so deep in my mouth, I can taste my ankle. Let's go inside? Let me use my mouth for something better than spouting dumb things?"
Hutch smiled then, and gave him a headshake of pure affection that Starsky knew wasn't a refusal of his brilliant plan. "Sounds like the perfect prelude to Café Martinique takeout. Just don't leave me so wrung out and weak in the knees I can't return the favor."
"We should've called first," Hutch said through a jaw-cracking yawn.
"You should be at home asleep." Starsky's resolve to stake out the house weakened enough for him to slide the key in the ignition. "Anyway, whenever I try calling, I just get the machine. I got the outgoing message memorized now. 'Hello. You have reached Sally and Michael. We can't take your call right now, but leave us your name, number, and a brief message, and we will return your call promptly. Goodbye.'"
"Very nice. Very professional. Much better than ours. 'When the machine does its thing, you do yours.' Very mature and sophisticated, Starsk. Really."
Starsky smirked. "Hey, Huggy suggested it, and I liked it."
They were parked curbside at the house Sally Hagen and Michael Babcock shared: a miniature hacienda complete with landscaping that included several species of cactus and a yucca. Sally's Corolla was conspicuously absent, the house appeared dark, and no one had answered Starsky's obnoxious banging on the door after the doorbell went ignored. Hutch had said that meant the couple had gone out for the evening. Starsky didn't think so. His gut told him otherwise. His cop instinct. For one thing, a new, gold-toned Nissan 300ZX languished underappreciated in the driveway. Starsky knew Babcock. If he'd taken Sally out for a night on the town, he'd show her and his new car off in style.
"It's a good sign, hm? The new car."
"A sign that Babcock's moving on?" Hutch yawned again. "Maybe. Maybe not. Could be a big metallic distraction suggested by Sally. Didn't Babcock drive the same car for a decade?"
"Yeah, but it was a classic Mustang. You don't part with a car like that until you have to."
Hutch nodded. "Right, and Sally drives a Corolla. Japanese import. Suddenly, Babcock, a dedicated Ford man like someone else I know, has a shiny new Japanese sports car? Smacks of somebody's influence more than his own desire for a new set of wheels."
Starsky turned a smile on his sleepy passenger. "You're just a cop in doctor's clothing."
Hutch glanced down at his green Izod polo and scruffy around-the-house jeans. "Not in doctor's clothing right now." He yawned again, wider than ever.
"Don't do that around the airport or a jet's liable to go missing off the runway. When I get you home, you're gonna sleep ten uninterrupted hours."
Starsky took one last look at the house and shrugged. He would get through to Babcock eventually. The man was too good a cop to stay in hiding, extended leave of absence be damned. He cranked the engine and pulled away from the curb, already debating routes home. His concern for sleep-deprived Hutch urged him to take the shortest way, but something else nagged at him, something he couldn't identify, that made him turn the Torino in a different direction. His chosen route would take them right through Zebra Three's old district. Hutch didn't notice at first, or if he did, he said nothing. His head lolled back against the seat; his posture relaxed. Starsky cruised up one street and down another, searching out the street signs that had half a dozen cases attached to them in his memory.
Broadway, Fifth, Main, Chandler, Farrington, Marshall.
With a grunt Hutch sat straighter in his seat. "Starsk? There some reason we're taking the long, long way home? Including a significant detour through the old garment district? I kept expecting to hear the static crackle of police band."
"Good night for driving. Thought you might be snoozing over there." He felt Hutch's stare on him, and knew Hutch could put two and two together from a concentrated study of his profile. "Look, it's a nice night. I wanted..." He didn't know. He wondered when, or if, he ever would.
Tuesday, July 1st, 1986
Waking from a dream that left him with the lingering scent of oppressive heat and jungle undergrowth, Starsky tumbled off the sofa, scattering papers in a five-foot radius. How had harmless Academy lecture notes turned into a nightmare so real it almost qualified as a flashback? With Hutch's help, he had put all the ghosts to bed in '79. Seven years since he'd opened up to Hutch about his wartime past, seven years of peace in his soul, where it counted most. No dreams. No flashbacks. Even during the Academy shooting in February, when his old hand-to-hand training took over, he hadn't traveled back to the land of soulless bargains with death under the guise of warring ideologies.
Now, the ghosts had crawled back out of bed with a vengeance.
Starsky abandoned the scattered papers and trudged down the hall and into the spare bedroom where they kept a footlocker that doubled as a window seat. Sunbeams through the thin curtains hit him full in the face, but the warmth couldn't break through the chill left from the near flashback. He knelt to fling the "seat" cushions off to the side, opening the footlocker for a peek at its contents--memorabilia from their years on the police force -- and yanked out a folded satin robe, decorative, terry-lined, with bright letters stitched on its back. OMAHA TIGER. Starsky smiled. The robe had arrived gift-wrapped at County Memorial in late May 1979, with a card inside.
He read the card clipped to the robe's lapel.
Bet you thought I'd go off to Vegas and forget my two favorite peace officers. Not a chance. You get yourself well soon, Starsky. The city wasn't meant to run itself with you guys off the streets. This robe brought me my fair share of luck. Maybe it'll do the same for you. Tell Hutch I'd be interested in a rematch any time he's ready. - Eddy.
Eddy "Omaha Tiger" Bell had done fine without his lucky robe, climbing the ladder in professional wrestling until he'd become a household name the likes of Hulk Hogan.
But the robe had more memories attached to it than Eddy's good wishes.
I lied to you during that case, Hutch. Not with what I said, but what I didn't say....
Funny little bruises on the neck.
I knew exactly what that bruise on Mack Johnson's neck meant. Could've told you we were dealing with murder before the coroner confirmed it; could've played the information off as something I read or picked up on TV. Too close, too near home base for me, so I played dumb and let you take the point on that lead, hoping you'd get to the truth yourself.
Starsky could hear an imaginary Hutch ask, "And if I hadn't?"
If that laundry owner hadn't had a matching bruise, or if you'd leaned toward accident in Mack's case, I would've said something, I swear. I was second-guessing myself. Hoping I was wrong, maybe he did get the bruise falling down those arena steps. Bad enough to lose Mack, but to lose him that way....
I remember sitting at our desk and asking you if a person could really kill someone that way, hoping like hell you couldn't tell I was trying to pull off an acting job worthy of Bogart himself. You said, "If you have the hands for it." And your face...you're expressive even when you're not trying to be.
With the robe spread over his knees, Starsky held up his hands and looked them over, in the manner of Lady Macbeth obsessed with telltale spots.
I depended on my hands to back you up on the street, to help out when you were down or wounded, to show you I cared. That redeemed them for me, Hutch. Couldn't afford to have you see them as the weapons I used in-country. You had no idea the damage I could've done to you in the wrestling ring that night if I'd slipped into my old training out of habit. And if you had known, would you've still felt comfortable throwing me down in the wrestling ring in the first place? Doubt it. I needed you to be comfortable touching me, Hutch. Even in the buddy-buddy way. Might not have been ready to deal with what it meant that I needed all the contact with you, but I needed it just the same.
Starsky wiped his hands against his chest and shoved the Omaha Tiger's robe aside, digging farther into the footlocker, where he found a framed photo that made him swallow hard. He and Hutch had their arms wrapped around the shoulders of a lovely lady cop. Helen.
"I'm a cop, not a vigilante."
He realized he'd spoken out loud, the same words he had used to convince Dobey that he could handle working Helen's murder case. Hutch's quiet nod of agreement and support, which Starsky would forever keep close to his heart, had done more to convince Dobey than a fired-up speech about justice.
Starsky dropped the framed picture lightly onto Eddy's robe and delved into the locker with no idea what he needed to find, only certain that he needed to find something. He came across two small velvet boxes, and flipped one open to reveal a law enforcement medal of valor. He had opened Hutch's, but the other velvet box held his own, the twin medals they had earned for the undercover operation that netted Lieutenant Fargo and a committee of real vigilantes.
You had no idea how much that case really meant to me, Hutch. When I came back to The World, I was damned glad to be in a country where courts and laws handle the punishing. I was willing to get burned to make sure a group of vigilante cops couldn't screw with our system. I know I talked rough to defense attorneys, and I won't deny there were times I thought some slime-bag got off too easy, but I didn't want to be a cop at all if I couldn't be a good cop. A clean cop.
Starsky gathered up the robe and photograph, placed them and the medal boxes neatly in the locker and closed the lid. He was shocked to feel a sudden pain in his chest like indigestion, or a swift kick in a tender location. Reaching for the cushions, he paused and let himself fully experience the ache.
So, that's it, huh? That explains a lot. The blahs and the grumps and the restlessness.
I want my shield back.
God, Hutch, you'd hit the roof harder than you did when Molly's moneybag adoptive parents let her start flying lessons at seventeen! Who the hell am I kidding? What would I do with a badge now? I'm seven years and three automatic slugs too late to think about street work. Wouldn't do it without you anyway. Fuck. Well, Richards might not like it, but at least I'm still responsible for shaping future cops.
Starsky thought about his lecture that evening, about Hobart and ethics and the realities of police work, and decided to revise his notes. Hobie, you ain't seen nothing yet! Yeah. He couldn't predict his future at the Academy beyond one lecture at a time, but by God, he'd give those part-timer cadets an ethics lecture they'd still be talking about at their retirement parties.
Take it from a former black-ops soldier, kiddos. Clean is better.
Hutch pressed his forehead to the cold metal door of his locker and tried to blank his mind of that youthful staring face on the trauma table. In the darkness behind his eyelids all he could see was the boy's expression of disbelief frozen in his sightless eyes by death. Sweat popped out on his skin. If he bothered to take his pulse he would top one hundred. A week might wipe the lifeless face from his mind, but he would still hear the grieving mother's shrill hysterics.
As a homicide detective, he'd seen death's handiwork every week, nearly every day. Working a zebra-unit, he'd watched death come for the old and young alike. From car accidents to overdoses to violent crime, he'd lived with the reality of the dead and dying, a reality that had gradually eaten through his soul like acid, leaving wounds only Starsky's love could heal.
The biggest wound, ripped through the very lining of his inner being while Death stalked Starsky seven years ago, had yet to fully scab over and stop its slow ooze. He waged a daily campaign against the fear and memories, shoring up his defenses, keeping a brave face for his partner. Days like this, when he threw every ounce of his strength, will, and know-how into keeping a young life off Death's scorecard, and had to watch that life slip through his fingers, he felt that deep wound inside him open and bleed. How did he stop the bleeding? How did he learn not to bleed for every patient he lost?
He sought comfort from the one source that never failed him.
Breathing in deep, exhaling slowly, he conjured images of his lover.
Yesterday evening, seemingly forever ago, Starsky had put together an impromptu "barbecue" before Hutch had to leave for shift. Steak seared to perfection, potatoes grilled in foil jackets, Hutch could still taste them. He smiled at the memory of Starsky's Academy anecdote over dinner. Some cadet nicknamed Superman had pulled another prank, gluing a twenty-dollar gag bill to the main corridor floor. Hutch had laughed himself hoarse at Starsky's imitation of Commandant Richards's desperate attempt to net himself twenty bucks without anyone seeing.
Hutch took in another long breath. If he could just hold that image of Starsky in mind for one more cleansing minute....
The locker room door swung open. "Hutchinson."
Hutch could handle anybody from Memorial's chief of staff to President Reagan, but Mannigan would squeeze the life pulp out of him with one stern green-eyed look. "You need me?" Mannigan didn't answer. Hutch made himself open his eyes and look over his shoulder. "If you want me out there, I'm fine. I just needed a minute."
"You took that one hard," Mannigan said in his matter-of-fact tone.
Glaring at the implied criticism, Hutch came dangerously close to the unthinkable sacrilege of flipping off his supervising physician. His powers of observation saved him in the nick of time. Mannigan's scrub top remained un-tucked from his faded blue scrub pants on one side and his stethoscope hung askew around his neck. Both were clear signs that the boy's violent death had shaken Memorial's Rock of Gibraltar.
"Thirteen years old, Trevor, and dead from gunshots to the neck and abdomen, so far gone we couldn't get him to surgery in time. Shot down by another junior high kid because of some imaginary lines they've drawn on the concrete of this city. Turf. Rival colors. It's got to stop, this teenage gang warfare. Starsky and I saw the nastiest side of human nature when we patrolled the inner city, but nothing compared to this. Children killing children! Christ, I don't know why anybody would want to be out there carrying a badge these days."
"Interesting point of view from a man whose significant other trains future police officers."
"I'm careful not to sound hopeless about the future of law enforcement around him." Hutch turned and propped against his locker. "I had no idea how much my perspective would change, practicing medicine. Don't get me wrong: I wouldn't trade the years I worked with Starsky for the fountain of youth and the map to El Dorado, but I'm grateful every second of every day that we're off the streets."
"Why did this particular patient affect you worse than other recent gang fatalities?"
Hutch looked up at the ceiling above his row of lockers where some idiot had managed to stick an oversized wad of pale pink chewing gum. When he found himself analyzing the topography of the gummy mound, he knew he'd stalled long enough. "It was the mother. So shocked and out of her mind with grief all she could wail about was her kid's ruined shirt. How much she'd paid for it just last week, and now it's bloody and torn, all that. Never mind that the shirt was part of the kid's gang 'uniform' that made him a target."
"Hutch, you should know by now that parents aren't coherent after they lose a child in our emergency department. It's to be expected, the hysteria, unusual reactions, gibberish."
"I know that! I know," he said in a softer tone when Mannigan gave him the raised eyebrow. "It reminded me of a case I worked with Starsky. I haven't thought about it in years. Young guy in his twenties murdered. We had to break the news to his father. The man was a dishwasher in a short-order joint, old before his time, and all he could focus on was the pair of shoes his son might've been wearing. They were his shoes, and he wanted them back. Just a defense mechanism. Cover for his pain."
"I can imagine that was gut-wrenching to witness."
"Yeah. This...tonight...brought it all back. Only worse, this time. So young."
"Go home, Hutch."
Hutch rubbed his eyes with fingers that didn't feel quite steady and gave Mannigan a raised eyebrow of his own. "What?"
"You've been here since eleven last night. It's a little after seven p.m. Go home."
"I don't need special treatment, Trevor. You're slammed out there tonight. I can shake this off if you just give me five damn minutes!"
"Did I say anything about special treatment? Dr. Moreno will be here in a few hours. It's her turn to burn the midnight oil with us, and we're covered in the meantime. You've done your share. I suggest you go home." With that stern, piercing stare, his green eyes hardened to jade, Mannigan conveyed the mandatory nature of his suggestion.
Hutch wandered room to room in their empty, quiet, too quiet, house, reminding himself every few minutes that evening session for Starsky at the Academy meant little chance of glimpsing his partner until the downhill slide to ten o'clock. He knew where Starsky was, right where Starsky wanted to be, where he was needed. That mantra slowly uncurled Hutch's fingers from his car keys, calming his irrational impulse to drive out to the Academy and pace the parking lot until end of session.
His growling stomach sent him foraging for leftover Tandoori chicken in the fridge. For once he tossed energy conservation out the window and turned on every light in the house, the TV, the clock-radio in the kitchen. He tried to eat on the sofa in front of summer season reruns, but he wasn't sufficiently desperate to watch Tony Danza pass himself off as a live-in housekeeper. NBC was a wash-out because Mr. T vying with Phil Collins on the kitchen radio for his attention pretty much defined surreal, and CBS's offering made him want to smack Nurse Caroline for corrupting him with her K/S chit-chat. Pre-Caroline, he would never have noticed that Rick and A.J. Simon had just too damn much chemistry for brothers. Maybe he could pretend they were siblings by adoption? Nah. Hutch switched off the TV.
"I can feel it coming in the air tonight...oh, Lord..."
The song's drum-machine throbbing pulse reminded him of a rock-music heart in sinus rhythm, amplified by a synthesizer stethoscope. Hutch pressed his fingertips to his temple and felt a pulse throbbing as hard and fast enough to keep pace. He fled to the kitchen, slapping the radio until he found the kill switch. Then he got practical. He scraped Tandoori remains into the disposal, drank down a glass of water, and decided on sports therapy. The next door neighbors were away from home, and if anyone else in the neighborhood wanted to bitch about Hutch shooting a few nighttime free throws, let them.
Watching Hutch abort his jump shot mid-jump and whirl at the Torino's sputter-stop, Starsky parked at the very end of their driveway, behind the T-Bird. Hutch tucked the basketball under his arm and headed toward him. In old track pants and green jersey with yellow stripes down the sleeves, Hutch was a blast from their past, but his bleak expression was all haggard physician fresh from spending all night and day face down in the so-called trenches. Starsky opened his door and leaned a little ways out to meet his kiss. He poked at the basketball under Hutch's arm.
"Not your usual wind-down from Memorial."
"I needed to work out some...you know."
Starsky heard a low, throaty groan Hutch couldn't trap behind clenched teeth. That sound meant only one thing. "Oh, God." Starsky petted through tousled hair. "A kid? You lost a kid?"
"Can't talk about it."
"I know, I know, confidentiality and all--"
"No, Starsk. I mean I can't talk about it. Just can't. How'd it go at the Academy this evening?"
"It went." Starsky swiped his thumb across Hutch's chin. "Fill you in later?" He batted the ball out of Hutch's loose hold, effortlessly stealing it. With a parting muss of Hutch's hair, he stepped back and began bouncing the ball.
Hutch reached out to play-pinch Starsky's side and one-hand scooped the basketball on its upward bounce to Starsky's waiting hands. "I think we could both work out some...you know."
"Yeah?" Starsky could go for that. "Good deal." He left his briefcase in the car along with his newly shed sports coat and tie, and rolled up his shirtsleeves.
Hutch dribbled over to the basketball goal mounted high over the garage. "First one to hit five baskets wins?"
"Hm." Hutch dribbled in place. "If I win, I want one of your best back and neck rubs."
"You can't think'a anything spicier than a back rub?"
"What's wrong with a back rub?"
"Nothin'! But I was giving you back rubs ten years ago before we even started--" Starsky formed a circle with one hand and thrust his finger back and forth through it in a pornographic gesture.
"And I liked them back then, and I like them now. What are you playing for?"
"If I win, you surprise me with a little action when I least expect it."
Ten minutes later, neither could claim victory, and Hutch got his "rub" by default, but not on his back or neck. In the middle of guarding the basket from Starsky's hook shot, Hutch had gone down on one knee, clearly the victim of vicious cramps seizing several muscles in his left leg.
"Siddown, go on, plop your ass down there, yeah." Starsky sat down facing him on the driveway and pulled Hutch's leg to him, going to work immediately on every muscle from calf to thigh through the worn cotton/polyester sweats.
"Damned left leg," Hutch grunted. "If it's not the basketball, we're due a monsoon."
"In July?" Starsky laughed, pressing, digging into Hutch's leg, switching off with warm, tender strokes. "Not a chance." Meanwhile, he tried carefully not to wince with certain movements of his shoulders.
Not good enough to escape Hutch's eagle eyes. "You too?"
"Yeah." Starsky grimaced. "One of my shoulders thinks I've been bowling for two hours, and the other thinks it's still got a bullet in it."
"We're some pair." Hutch motioned for Starsky to stop the leg rub. "Your turn. Turn around." He sat forward and began squeezing, rubbing Starsky's sore shoulders. "I say we share a hot bath with Epsom salts and then we slather each other in Ben-gay." He continued to knead Starsky's shoulders. "Who says we can't age gracefully?"
"Gracefully or not, I don't give a damn, long's I get to age with you."
Hutch turned Starsky's head just a fraction, probably to avoid causing pain, and kissed him dead center on the ear, following the kiss with a puff of breath. "I don't see myself letting anyone else coat me in smelly sport's cream."
Starsky laughed. "Not exactly a proposal, but I'll take it."
Hutch had located another knot of tension between Starsky's shoulders. "You know, I don't think all of this knotting-up is from a little basketball. What went down at the Academy?"
Starsky let his head drop down, giving Hutch better access to his neck. "Nothin' much. Some guy showed up in my ethics lecture for the part-timers. Didn't introduce himself, just slipped in five minutes after class started and left right before I dismissed the cadets. He was Somebody."
He felt Hutch's fingers boring in to tight muscle, a kiss landing on the back of his head. "How do you know that, if he didn't introduce himself?"
"Well, he had the look. Then there was how Hobie acted. He was there again, gave his little paint-by-numbers speech, only this time, he was playing to an audience of one, like he was auditioning for the last part in some musical and this stranger was Andrew Lloyd Webber. Ugh." Starsky lifted his shoulders in a half shrug. "Anyone who commands that kinda respect from Hobart probably isn't out to start up a Starsky fan club."
"Hobie didn't tell you who the guy was?"
"Nope. Just kept shooting me these told-you-so smirks. All I could do not to wipe ‘em off his face with the back'a my hand, damn it. Good thing was, Leitner showed to make up the lecture he spaced on last week. Still no word on his dad, but he looked better. A little."
"I can't imagine how he's holding it together, all that waiting, wondering."
Starsky felt Hutch's shudder and nodded his agreement. "Yeah. Hey, how about that bath?" He scrambled to his feet, snapped his fingers and started down the driveway to the car. "Briefcase."
Hutch snagged him by the arm. "I'll get it. You go on in."
He swatted Hutch on the butt and hurried up the front walk, already tasting the spice sweetness of root beer. Hey, after that exercise, Hutch wouldn't deny him a little sugar-bomb. That anticipation made the shift-and-hunt expedition in the fridge worthwhile. He finally found the last bottle hiding behind a jar of Hutch's goat milk as if ashamed to show its face around the healthier beverages.
With the swing slam of the fridge door, life got interesting. Before Starsky could blink, he found himself maneuvered around and up against the refrigerator. He could only sag a little under the force of Hutch's mouth against his, root beer bottle dangling from his hand, and suck on Hutch's tongue and breathe in his sweat and gasp at the tickle of fingers on his groin, down his zipper.
"Wha--?" He tried to ask when Hutch let him breathe.
"Were you expecting it?"
"I...but I didn't win at one-on-one."
"We'll pretend you did."
Who was Starsky to argue with genius?
Thursday, July 3rd, 1986
"Get in, Cadet Kent," Starsky ordered, changing the form on his clipboard. "You're my last victim today. No one in your class has scored ten out of ten on this obstacle course. Let's see if you can do better." Clipboard tucked under arm, he slipped on his open-face helmet and re-adjusted the chinstrap.
The other cadets in Starsky's Intermediate Tactical Driving course gave whoops of teasing solidarity from the safety observation area as Cadet Clark "Superman" Kent strode cockily onto the closed course. Tall and wiry, freckle-faced and dimple-cheeked, the fair-haired young man resembled none of the popular images of the Man of Steel, but he had an ego that could stop a speeding bullet and a sense of humor that had never met its kryptonite.
"Just pick that POS patrol car up and throw it around the obstacles, Superman!" Leitner shouted from the safety area. "That'll show Instructor Starsky."
"Give it a rest, Leitner!" His full-face helmet secured, visor up, Kent paused in the open driver's side door. "I'm gonna show Instructor Starsky he's not the only one who can whip a couple of tons of ugly-ass automobile around orange traffic cones at seventy miles per hour without breaking a sweat."
Starsky wagged his clipboard at the cadet. "This course doesn't intimidate you, Kent? I'll make it more interesting. In addition to the obstacle requirements, you gotta give me such a smooth ride I don't make any ink smears on your assessment sheet. One smear is an automatic point deduction." He winked at the onlookers and got a round of applause.
"Aw, man!" Kent griped. Starsky situated himself in the passenger seat and waited for the cadet to get comfortable behind the wheel, humming while Kent adjusted his seat, checked his mirrors. "You're really gonna deduct me like that?"
"Do I strike you as a man who doesn't mean what he says?" Starsky smiled at Kent's solemn headshake. "You'll learn, kid, in the real world you're either ready to back up the bravado, or you keep the bravado to yourself. Piece of advice? Don't think about your score. Focus on the obstacles, on the drive. Feel the road. You'll ace it."
While Kent slapped down his helmet visor, Starsky settled in for the ride. He'd designed this course of wrecked cars, stalled traffic simulation, orange traffic cones, wet and dry hazards, and oil slicks, and he enjoyed watching the cadets go up against his handiwork.
They were also competing against him. Aware of his reputation as the Academy's toughest driving instructor, he knew these young go-getters were eager to prove themselves. He'd prepared them with lectures and slideshows. He'd driven the course with each cadet riding shotgun to give them a feel for the maneuvering before they had to get behind the wheel. Today was the culmination of the driving course, their chance to make good. He also knew Hutch included Detroit in prayers of gratitude for producing clunky patrol cars that could tangle with a tank and drive away intact. After all, put inexperienced go-getters with something to prove in the driver's seat, and shit happened.
Kent gunned the trainer car down the entrance straightaway. Starsky scribbled "jackrabbit start" on his assessment sheet. Approaching the first group of obstacles, a jagged pattern of large crates meant to simulate cargo dropped from a semi on the freeway, Kent was too heavy on the brake, too light in his steering grip.
"The control's in your fingertips, Kent, not your feet. Don't depend on your brakes, you might find yourself without them one day."
After that, the cadet took them through the hundred-yard stretch of "stalled traffic" where he had to weave in and out of randomly spaced, empty cars, as he might have to do on an emergency call in the real world.
"Tighter, tighter," Starsky urged. "You take a Crown Vic that footloose through real traffic, you'll sideswipe civilian vehicles, and in the real world, you gotta be ready for some idiot to get out and rubber-neck the situation. Which means what, Kent?"
"Means I have to look for vehicle doors to open unexpectedly, sir."
Cadet Kent aced the wet and dry hazards and impressed Starsky with his control on the patch of oil slick. He got a cocky grin from the cadet when they approached the "slalom" course of bright orange cones. Kent handled the maneuvering like a pro, and Starsky had yet to make ink smear number one. The trainee cruised past the last traffic cone and eased into the exit straightaway with a perfect finish in sight. Starsky ducked his head to make final marks on the assessment sheet, confident he and the cadet were home free. He had virtually no warning before Kent slammed on the brakes as if their lives depended on a dime stop with nine cents change, instinctively thrusting his arm out to brace Starsky across the chest.
Slapping the cadet's arm away, Starsky ended up crumpled over the dashboard, the metallic clamp lever on his clipboard making nasty contact with his forehead just below the helmet rim. He felt the gash, but his first concern was Kent, who'd removed his helmet, dropping it to his lap and staring out the windshield in surprise Starsky didn't understand.
Righting himself, he grabbed Kent's arm. "Physics of collision, Kent! Kinetic energy. G-force. Where were you in that lecture, huh? Never use your arm to brace your passenger. In a collision with a 30-G deceleration, the effective weight of a guy like me would top 5,000 pounds. You want that kind of force exerted on your arm?"
Kent started to protest, but then he jerked his arm away from Starsky's grasp as fat crimson drops plopped on his light blue driver's suit sleeve. "You're bleeding!" he said in a voice icy with revulsion.
Starsky put a hand to his forehead and drew away red-stained fingers. "I'm all right," he said to calm the cadet. "Clipboard clamp grazed me. Graze wounds always bleed like a motherfu--um, like hell. My fault for preferring a visor-free helmet."
"Blood...can't... oh, God, oh God." White as the assessment sheet form, saucer-eyed and sweating, Cadet Kent scrambled out of the car, his helmet tumbling after him.
"What the hell?" Starsky yelled, fighting the handle mechanism on his door that had jammed during the sudden braking. Something for the mechanic pool to worry about. "Kent?"
Hunched over in a crouch not far from a fetal position, Kent shook violently, lost in fear. Stunned, Starsky realized he now knew why Kent played the class clown. Cover, all right, but not for his unfortunate name, it was to hide his one weakness. Starsky had seen squeamishness before; hell, blood wasn't his favorite liquid by any stretch of the imagination, but this took the cake. So, blood was Kent's kryptonite. Who would've guessed?
The instinct to protect his cadets, developed over years at the Academy, fiercer than ever since February, seized Starsky in its white-hot grip. Clawing off his helmet, he scrambled across the center console and out the open driver's door to get to Kent. On a quick glance around the worried faces of the cadets gathered on the exit straightaway, he thought he saw one of his students soothing a spotted dog. Oh, shit, maybe he'd taken the same fast cruise around the good old bend as his trainee driver.
"Don't..." Kent muttered in that dead voice, ducking his head when Starsky neared him.
He knelt beside the young man, touched his shoulder. "Kent, look at me."
"It's okay, take it easy. Just lift your head slowly, not too fast."
"Can't, sir. The blood on your face...I'll be sick."
Watching Kent curl, flinching, tighter into himself as if under a rain of physical blows, Starsky shot to his feet, clipboard in hand. "Cadet Kent!" he commanded. "On your feet!" Kent trembled. "Cadet Kent, I gave you a direct order. On your feet! Now!" Kent pulled himself off the asphalt. His slouch against the front driver's side panel was one of utter dejection. Still pale, visibly shaken, the cadet made a nervous hand gesture at Starsky's forehead, shuddering again. "Make eye contact with me, Cadet!"
Kent met his eyes with a stricken expression and an audible gulp, then hastily swiveled, propping one hand on the car's hood, and bent over, emptying the contents of his stomach on the pavement. "Jesus, kid." Starsky patted his back. "Okay, sorry, okay. It's okay." He heard responsive retching and murmurs from the other cadets around him, some concerned, others mocking.
"Hey, what's with Superman?"
"Instructor Starsky got a little banged up, and Superman's wigging out over the blood."
"Kent, a little blood made you blow chunks all over the course? Day-uh-um, man!"
"Hey, you a pansy in superhero clothing, Kent? You leave your balls at home in your tights?"
"Dude, remind me not to sit next to you at a horror movie."
"Pussy wouldn't make it past the trailer posters outside the theater."
"For the love of Christ, cowboy up, Kent, you're embarrassing me here!"
Starsky shook his head and pointed at the four taunting ringleaders. "Myers, Dunlap, Robertson, Macy, you guys disappoint me."
"But, sir," Cadet Macy said, "you were pushing him to get up and look at you."
Starsky tapped the clipboard against the instructor badge pinned to his driver's suit. "This nifty piece of plastic means it's my job to push you guys and girls, test your limits. You aren't wearing one. You don't get a badge like this in the bottom of a Crackerjacks box. You earn it. You haven't earned it."
"Sir, yes sir," said Dunlap, "but Kent's always pulling pranks. We're just giving him a little of his own."
"Congrats, Dunlap. Now I'm disgusted. You don't know the difference between jokes and kicking a guy when he's down?" He glared at Myers, who hadn't stopped snickering and nudging one of his buddies. "Myers! You're Kent's class partner. You don't ever, ever, taunt your partner like that in front of other officers when he's down for the count. Cowboy up? Where do you get off? You were born and raised in Santa Barbara. Closest you've been to anything cowboy is Country Music Television."
Myers flushed and fell silent.
"Robertson, you played high school ball. You ever stand around and jeer a teammate who's down on the field after a rough tackle?"
"Sir, no, sir! Coach would've had my ass."
"Damn right he would. You wanna tell me how this situation is any different?"
Robertson averted his eyes and mumbled.
"Dunlap, I didn't see Kent ragging on you when you freaked out from all the noise your first time on the firing range. You gotta prove you still got balls by questioning his?"
"Sir, no, sir," Dunlap muttered.
Starsky glared at the cadets still smothering laughter in the background. "I guess some of you think this is funny? You think this is the same as locker room ribbing? I'm here to tell you it's not the same damned thing, people. You'll get your share of teasing in a precinct locker room, but you ever see it go too far, you do something about it, not join in. I got news for you. High School is over. If you're not halfway grown up by the time you reach the streets, odds are you won't live to grow up the rest of the way. Am I clear?"
"Sir, yes, sir, Instructor Starsky!"
Starsky nodded at Myers. "Escort your class partner to the showers, Myers."
Myers glanced at Kent, who leaned against the car wiping his mouth with the sleeve of his driving suit, and quickly looked away. "Sir, no sir!"
"I don't think I heard you right, Cadet! Did you just refuse to follow a direct order from a senior instructor, Cadet?"
"Sir, yes sir!"
"You got what you might call a reason for that, Cadet?"
"Sir, I won't enable him and his weakness, sir!"
"Kent's been your partner since start of session in January, six months of partnership, six months to learn just what that word means, and you're telling me you won't help your partner, Cadet?"
"Cadet Kent doesn't belong at the Academy, sir, so I no longer see him as my partner, sir. Request class partner reassignment, sir!"
"Denied, Cadet! You think you know who belongs at the Academy and who don't? You died and came back a Texas Ranger or something? You're out, Myers! Turn around and walk; you're done. Clear out your locker, go home, and don't bother to report to class on Monday."
Myers seemed to sway in place. "Sir!"
"Do I need to spell the words out for you, Myers? You refused your partner assistance, and did it so easy, so cold, I got an idea you'd have no problem turning a blind eye if your partner on the job took a live round and went down. In any of my courses that's grounds for expulsion."
"Sir, Kent wasn't injured in the line of duty, he was--"
"You think the only place you're supposed to be your partner's back-up is the street? You're a sadder case than I thought. There's no place in police work for a one-man band, Myers, and no place at this Academy either, long's I'm here! Bounce!"
Myers gave Starsky a look that should've left a bloody, ragged hole in his chest, but walked away, in perfect marching stride. Cadet Leitner stepped forward.
"Yes, Leitner?" Starsky growled. "You got something to add to this comedy'a errors?"
"Sir, yes sir! Permission to escort Kent to the showers, sir?"
"You got it. Thanks. I'll be in there later to check on you, Kent." Starsky watched Leitner steer the shaking Kent away from the training car with a light hand on his shoulder. He knew he should take ten deep breaths, count to one hundred forwards and backwards, and walk away before he did something he regretted. Anger won the day.
"Listen up, everybody!" Starsky ignored the warm, thick trail of blood he could feel slipping down his left cheek. "I got something to say! When you graduate from this funhouse, you'll sign on with various law enforcement agencies. You'll swear an oath, to protect and serve. That starts with protecting your partner, do you understand?"
"Sir, yes, sir, Instructor Starsky!" the cadets answered.
"Can anyone tell me why?"
"Sir, we're not fit to protect the general public if we don't have any concern for each other," said Cadet Holm, Leitner's class partner. "Keeping our partner safe keeps us safe in turn and keeps us on the streets where we can do that protecting and serving."
"Damn right, Cadet. All right, then. If I ever see evidence from any of you that you don't intend to live up to that oath on your beat as officers, I'll fail you outta this place so fast your shadow will need a jetpack to catch up. You saw me do just that with Myers, so don't think you can test me. Do I hear a Ten-Four, Instructor Starsky?"
"Ten-Four, Instructor Starsky!"
Echoing that shout from his entire class, a distinctly canine bark made Starsky question how hard he'd slammed his head into his clipboard, which he realized he'd brandished like a machete throughout his tirade. Slapping the clipboard and pen down on the car's cooling hood, he felt an itch between his shoulder blades. His sixth sense for trouble in the making turned his head to the safety area, and his anger froze on contact with the cold, disgusted expression on Commandant Richards's face. Beside the Academy's chief officer stood a slender, graying dark-haired man in a conservatively tailored suit -- the same man who had attended Starsky's evening ethics lecture for the part-time students. Starsky thought he'd seen the guy somewhere else, that he should know who the stranger was, but he was in no frame of mind to play Name That Face.
Richards gave Starsky a look that sufficed as a ticket to the unemployment office. Then, with a headshake and murmurs to the man at his side, the commandant led the visitor away. Starsky sighed heavily: Hobart might not be E.F. Hutton, but Starsky had a feeling that well-dressed visitor knew how to make the right people listen. He looked like one of the suits on the Academy Board of Directors; if the guy was Richards's buddy on top of it, Starsky likely had a pink slip in his future.
Starsky nodded at the crowd of cadets. "Go on, hit the showers. We're done here."
One by one, they filed away. Cadet Myra Geary stepped forward, holding out a handful of tissues. "That's a nasty cut, sir. You should stop by the infirmary."
"Looks worse'n it is, but thanks." Starsky accepted the tissues and dabbed at his hairline. Then he saw the cadet's new sidekick. He blinked, rubbed his eyes with the heel of his palm, blinked again, but the animal didn't vanish in a puff of black-spotted white smoke. "What is that?"
"She's why Kent braked so hard," Geary explained, crouching down at the dog's side. "I don't know where she came from or how she got on the closed course, but she ran right out in front of him on that exit straightaway. We didn't see her until it was too late."
"She?" Starsky asked, still flabbergasted.
Geary gave him a look that suggested he might be a concussed nincompoop. "Yes, sir. She's a girl dog, still very young, I'd say. She has a collar. Her name is Smudge."
The Dalmatian turned huge brown eyes on him and eased over in a fearful slink to nose at his hand, sniffing. She whined softly, nuzzling his palm with her wet nose. Starsky wanted to laugh, but he knew the laughter would come out twisted and scare the living daylights out of both the dog and Geary.
"You want me to walk her over to the main building, sir?"
"No, thanks. I'll take care of it." Geary left with a parting smile. Starsky crouched down at eye level with the dog to stroke her neck, scratch behind her ears, and rub her velvety tummy. "Thought spotted dogs were supposed to be good luck, huh, what happened? And what the hell kinda name is Smudge, girl?"
"She's a firehouse dog," said a loud voice that Starsky didn't recognize. "Her spots look like smudges of soot and ash, that's why the name. Here, Smudge. Here, girl."
Bristling at the newcomer's arrogant tone, Starsky rose to his feet and faced down the gigantic fireman. The man had to top six-four, muscled from neck to feet, with tree-trunk biceps that nearly split the dark blue BCFD t-shirt, and he wasn't smiling. "What's she doing here?"
"Lighten up." The visitor scowled. "I bet you're a real joy in the classroom. My engine company's here to do a demo for the Police and Fire Rescue thing. We brought Smudge along. So, she got a little restless and wandered away. She wouldn't hurt anybody."
"Lighten up? Listen, pally, that dog could've gotten one of my cadets killed. She ran out on this closed driving course, right in front of my training vehicle. It's a miracle she's not a spotted splatter on the pavement! I don't care if she goes up the ladder carrying a bucket for you guys, she's no trained police dog, and she's got no business where she might interfere with Academy training."
No doubt sensing the heightened tension, Smudge growled, the sound more nervous than threatening, as if the dog couldn't figure out which to protect, her newfound friend or her master.
"What the fuck's your problem?" the fireman snapped. "I bet you're the kind of guy who stomps on ladybugs and takes potshots at squirrels and thinks somebody should set a trap for Mickey Mouse." Whistling for Smudge, he stomped off to the exit gate, the Dalmatian loping at his side.
"Hey, bozo!" Starsky yelled after him. "You're not exactly God's gift to PETA, letting that dog wander around where she might get killed!"
Smudge looked back at him. The fireman didn't. Starsky lifted his eyes to the sun, welcoming the twinge of discomfort that made him squint. After a moment of silence for his torpedoed career, he collected his clipboard and pen and stuffed the crumpled, bloody tissues in his driver's suit front pocket. The acrid, sour smell of vomit exposed to the sun reminded him he had a cadet to check on in the men's locker room. He hoped to God Hutch was home from Memorial, and not because of the forehead scrape. What he needed from Hutch couldn't be written on a prescription pad.
"Here you go, Edith. I've made space." Hutch ducked out of the fridge where he'd cleared a shelf for the shrink-wrapped whole chickens, all six of them, destined for soup pots and a starring role in the monthly Starsky-Hutchinson Chicken Soup for Shut-Ins Day.
Lately, Memorial had run him so ragged that an hour of tidying the kitchen felt like an escape to Fiji. Instead of swim trunks and suntan lotion, Hutch lounged content in worn jeans and the Doctors Need Love Too t-shirt he'd had screen-printed to match an old bumper sticker from his cop days. His "island" companion wasn't his lover, but at the moment he would make do with the easygoing company of a friend who didn't bark medical orders or raise the Mannigan-eyebrow-of-death. He put a jar of wheat germ high in the cabinet where he kept his health food, well away from Starsky's junk food shelf. Edith Dobey handed him the jar of blackstrap molasses next, and it went right beside the wheat germ.
"I can't tell you how much we appreciate this, Edith. Are you sure it's not a problem?"
Recently, Edith had made herself their designated grocery shopper. Each week he and Starsky gave her a list and an estimated sum of money always at least a few dollars more than what their items added up to; each time, Edith brought back exact change. After the first time, Hutch didn't protest when she forced the dollars and cents into his hand. He knew the errand-running on their behalf was Edith's way of showing her gratitude for her husband's life, and expecting her to keep the change only insulted her kindness.
She gave him a look of motherly irritation. "I have to buy groceries for my family. While I'm at it, there's no reason I can't add your necessities to the cart. I have the time to clip coupons and save you boys some money. You and David don't have that kind of time."
"No, we seem to have less and less time, and next week it'll get even crazier when I start my intensive mini-rotations with the other trauma fellowship candidates."
"You boys will make the soup this evening and then deliver it tomorrow?"
"That's right. Starsky does the delivery. I'll be on at Memorial. He loads that Tomato down and makes the rounds. It's a team effort. You're a tremendous help, getting ingredients for us, and your brownies are a hit. Kiko Ramos - you know he's a station chef at the Plaza Hotel's restaurant? He donated the industrial grade cookware, and his mother, Mila, mixes up seasonings we use in the soup."
"Well, I'm happy to help." Edith tapped the lid on one of the large Tupperware trays of brownies. "Now, which young man always refuses to eat anything but my brownies?"
"I think that's Scott."
"Well, you have David tell Scott he doesn't get a single brownie until he puts away at least a few spoonfuls of your soup."
"That just might work, Edith." Hutch didn't tell her that even his vitamin-fortified soup couldn't boost the immunity of a frail, shadow being with a T-cell count lower than a frat boy's IQ after a kegger. Chicken Soup for Shut-Ins had more of an emotional than medicinal impact, showing hospice patients they were valued, cared for, not forgotten, out of sight, out of mind. Listening intently, he caught the faint rumble-shoosh of the Torino pulling up outside. "Speaking of my partner... Traffic must have been terrible. He usually gets in earlier than this on the days he has the full-time cadets."
Edith slipped the carton of eggs into its place in the fridge. "I've noticed you watching the clock."
The front door slam told him Starsky had kicked it shut with one foot after crossing the threshold loaded down with briefcase and files. Edith turned from putting ground hamburger packages in the meat drawer.
"Hutch!" Starsky called.
"In the kitchen with Edith, Starsk."
Starsky appeared in the open archway, weighted down as expected, his slacks and light pullover shirt rumpled as always by the driving suit on driving course days. Hutch hadn't foreseen rust-brown crusted blood on Starsky's rugged face. Alarm dizzied him. He forced himself not to leap at Starsky like a frantic med student.
Edith looked up from the grocery bag and promptly took a startled step back, dropping a loaf of bread. "My goodness, David, what on earth?"
Starsky offered them a tight smile and nod. "Just a little scrape, Edith. Nothing to it."
"Superficial," Hutch agreed. "Let me take a closer look."
"Hutch, it's nothing for you to go into doctor mode over."
"Do you really want me to ignore it? Do you think I could?"
"Nah, I know you couldn't, wouldn't want you to. Go ahead." Abandoning the briefcase and files on the kitchen table, Starsky slumped down in a chair. Hutch took a moment to run his hand through his weary lover's hair and scratch at the nape of his neck as a promise of intimate touches to come when Edith had gone home to Dobey. Starsky smiled up at him, tiredness in his eyes that ran deeper than physical fatigue.
"What happened?" Hutch asked.
"We had the fire department engine company out today for a scheduled demo in one of the courses on the part-time track. Their doggy mascot ran out on the closed driving course while one of my cadets was heading into the exit straightaway. Kent was lucky to see her in time, but he slammed on brakes and I had a close encounter with my clipboard." He winced. "Serves me right for using the open-faced helmet. It's DOT-certified, but I guess from now on I'll use one with a visor like the cadets."
Edith's eyes widened. "Oh, David, how awful. Was the cadet all right?"
"Sure, sure. Kid's got great reflexes, I'll give him that. Dog was fine too."
When Hutch had sterilized his hands at the sink and gathered his medical kit, he noticed Edith had brought over a glass of lemonade for Starsky. He thanked her with a smile and went to work, thumbing a clump of curls off Starsky's forehead so he could get a good look at the laceration underneath. "Sounds like you train your drivers right, partner."
"I do my best, Hutch. Gotta drill them in the fundamentals so they'll know how to improvise when the situation calls for it. Ouch!"
"Yeah, I know that smarts. Hold still, will you? You don't need stitches, but I want to dress this." He began coating the superficial cut with antiseptic.
Starsky made a rude noise at the topical burn, earning a light swat to the back of the head as a reminder of their guest, and hurriedly sipped lemonade and let out an appreciative sigh. "Hey, Edith?"
Edith had returned to squaring away the groceries. "Yes, David?"
"I wanted to ask you something, but it might bring up some rough memories."
"Nonsense." She wagged the long box of spaghetti at him. "Thank you for the concern, but I'm a policeman's wife, and I've faced every crisis at Harold's side. My husband's retirement doesn't mean I suddenly need protection from memories."
Done with dressing the gash, Hutch wiped his hands free of ointment and clasped them behind Starsky's head, bending to plant a kiss just below the taped bandage. Starsky grabbed his hand and squeezed it twice before letting go. The brief hand hold and tenderness in Starsky's eyes showed a wealth of gratitude, more reward than glowing praise from Mannigan.
After another long swallow of lemonade, Starsky inched the chair around to face Edith at the fridge. "When the captain was in the hospital after his surgery, I remember one day I visited, this guy came in Dobey's room just as I was leaving. Looked familiar to me then, but I couldn't place him. Saw him again at the Academy today, still couldn't put a name to his face. On the way home, I remembered seeing him at Memorial. Slim guy, about Dobey's age, my height, dark graying hair, likes to wear smart suits, gray with a white shirt, blue tie. Ring a bell?"
Edith was rolling oranges out of their produce bag on to the counter. "If you saw him coming to visit Harold, I'd say that's probably Aron. Aron Levinthal."
"Why's that name so familiar to me?"
"To me, too." Hutch packed the unused medical supplies into his kit. "But not from Memorial."
"You probably read the newspaper articles or saw him on TV, and I know David's heard his name at the Academy. Aron's the new commissioner of police."
Hutch watched Starsky's face turn the approximate color of the bandage taped to his forehead. He reached out to clasp his shoulder, asking him a dozen critical but silent questions with his eyes, but Starsky only stared up at him in mute distress.
Her back to them as she bent to situate a carton of milk on the fridge's top shelf, Edith didn't see the effect her words had. "Why was he at the Academy, David?"
"I--uh--" Starsky frowned. "I'm not sure." He gave Hutch a look that pleaded for him to engineer the privacy of their kitchen.
Glancing at the wall clock, Hutch thanked the universe for small favors. "Um, Edith, weren't you supposed to pick Rosie up at the music camp tryout at seven?"
"My goodness, yes." She backed out of the fridge and looked up at the clock for confirmation. "I should get a move on or I'll be late if I'm caught in traffic, and she'll be famished. I was just about finished here."
"It's fine, Edith, really, we can finish up," Hutch said, earning a brief smile from Starsky.
Even rattled, Starsky didn't completely neglect good manners. "Yeah, thanks a lot, Edith, for all the help with the shopping and stuff. Glad I got home in time to see you. Tell Rosie we want a phone call if she gets into that music camp."
"Anytime, David, my pleasure, and I'll be sure to give Rosie your message. You take it easy this evening after that mishap on the driving course. I'll tell Harold you saw Aron. He'll be so happy to know Aron's taking an active interest in the Academy."
"Maybe you should wait on that, Edith," Hutch suggested. "In case Levinthal's interest in the Academy isn't motivated by something positive. The captain has enough on his plate starting his cardiac rehab program. The less stress, the better."
Gathering her purse and keys, she nodded. "If it's something positive, Aron will tell him."
Anxious to be alone with Starsky, Hutch walked their friend to the front door and thanked her one last time, too distracted to pick up on what she said in farewell. No sooner had the door closed than he rushed back to the kitchen where Starsky was leaning as far as possible into the open fridge in search of something. He swore viciously, backing out again to slam the door shut. Behind the door various bottles and jars in the side shelves rattled their disapproval of the rough treatment.
"Out of beer. How the fuck is today grocery day and we're out of beer? Huh?"
"You know Edith's shopping doesn't run to alcoholic beverages." Hutch waited in the archway. "What's going on, Starsk? Takes something mean and twice as nasty to rattle you like this."
Starsky pounded his clenched fists together, butting knuckles. "We could be a one-income household by next week. You nailed it, what you said about Hobart. About him having more pull now Dobey's not there? You were right. He did it. He warned me, the overgrown weasel, and I pretty much laughed in his face. But he's got the commissioner out there spying on me!"
"What? I don't believe it."
"Wish I didn't. I didn't hallucinate the guy. That's who was at my ethics lecture last night. Told you he was Somebody. Richards brought him by the driving course this afternoon. Worst possible timing!"
"Because of the near accident? That wasn't your fault, Starsk. The engine company shouldn't have had the dog with them on the Academy grounds, much less let it wander into restricted areas. Even Richards can't hold that against you."
"It's not the accident, it's what happened afterward." Listening as Starsky recounted the young cadet's reaction to the sight of blood, and its result, Hutch felt a glow of pride, envisioning Starsky all fired up on the sacred subject of partnership. Starsky looked anything but proud of himself. "Levinthal and Richards saw the whole thing, saw me give Myers the boot."
"I know it's not something you wanted to do, Starsky, but as senior instructor don't you have the authority to make command decisions like that when you have to?"
"Yeah, but in six years out there, I never played that card. Today I was outta my head furious. You and me, we gave each other shit from time to time, and sometimes we let it go too far. Guys don't always know how to put on the brakes. Goes with the territory. But this was cold, Hutch, what Myers did. One tiny hint of human weakness from Kent, and Myers was ready to erase him and nearly six months of class partnership from memory. Wipe, wipe, gone!"
"The Academy isn't summer camp, Starsk. You had cause to crack down." Hutch shook his head. "You bounced a cadet who isn't fit to carry the shield if he can turn on his class partner like that. Don't get it in your head that you tossed Myers because of your special feelings about our partnership, or out of some rebound reaction to Babcock losing Simmons. You have more distance and objectivity than that."
"The brass won't see it that way!" Starsky argued. "I walk a tightrope there all the time, worse since February. I knew I was in trouble when Richards took away my Hand to Hand sessions. Four years I taught Hand to Hand, no problems, none, then wham! After February's clusterfuck, I'm out. Didn't I tell you? Trouble. As if I'd suddenly start landing my own cadets in the ER with broken bones or send ‘em out on the streets trained to kill with their pinkies, and now this...goddamn it!"
Hutch couldn't stay several feet away, his step forward telegraphing his need. Signal received, Starsky opened his arms in anticipation, and Hutch walked gladly into that welcoming hug, sliding his arms around Starsky's neck, one hand northbound to stroke through soft, thick hair. Starsky pressed his hands against the small of Hutch's back under the thin cotton t-shirt. They held each other silently, Starsky's face turned against Hutch's neck, giving a tangible indicator of his self-directed anger with the twitching of that strong jaw. Hutch held him tighter, then tighter still, until he felt Starsky's mouth relax into a kiss to his neck, heard him take a full breath.
"Did you find out why the cadet reacted like that to seeing you bleed? That strong an aversion response to such a small amount of blood has more cause than a weak stomach."
Starsky's next kiss landed on Hutch's ear. "By the time I made it to the locker room, Kent and Leitner were swapping I-dated-a-girl-who-liked-such-and-such-in-bed stories."
"Ah, the resilience of youth."
"You got it. Leitner headed out, and I pressed Kent for answers. Damn, Hutch. When Kent was a kid he and his brother spent summers with their granddad out in the ranchland. One day they got the bright idea to do a little bull-baiting: jump in the pen with the bull, smack it on the ass, and then run like hell and jump back over the fencing."
"What formulaic Hollywood Western did they get that shit from? Christ. Kids."
"No kidding. Kent's brother didn't make it to the fencing. Bull gored him. Bad. When the ranch hands got on scene, Kent had fought the bull off with a pitchfork and dragged his brother under the bottom fence rail. Nine years old, Kent had to watch his brother almost bleed to death before rescue services got there."
"His brother make it?"
"Yeah, barely. All scarred up, walks with a limp." Starsky's voice tightened. "Before the accident Kent had wanted to be a veterinarian. After? He said he can't stand seeing a drop of animal blood either. What do you say to something like that? Hm?"
Hutch pressed his lips to Starsky's temple. "I don't know what I would've said out loud. I would've been asking myself why he couldn't decide to become a computer programmer."
"Great minds think alike. I'm surprised he made it this far. Apparently, he tossed his cookies in Gibson's Accident Response class last week. Passed it off as a stomach bug."
"Seeing you bleed as a result of his sudden hard braking was probably harder on him than the blood itself, especially if he's holding on to guilt over his brother's accident. What did you tell him?"
"I hit him with the straight stuff, Hutch. Told him three out of every five shifts, cops stand a good chance'a seeing blood, and cops don't have to get shot to get bloodied themselves. Told him he needs to see the Academy counselor, and I'd talk to Richards about switching him to the part-time track so he'll have until January to work through it."
"Doesn't look good for him, though."
"No. I'm making him sit out next week's Advanced First Aid and Emergency Awareness. If he stays he can pick them up later with the part-timers. He wants to help people, and I get that. I wanna give him a chance to make it. But, yeah, I wish he'd find another way to serve the public."
"Not a damn thing wrong with knowing and admitting to honest limitations," Hutch said.
For some reason Starsky tensed against him, then started to pull away. Hutch caught Starsky's arm. Turning, Starsky gave him a look that was life and love and need, a light that could shatter any darkness, but the kiss barely whispered against Hutch's lips in soft, gentle brushes, their mouths parting for brief stroke of tongue tips. For once late in the day Hutch came out of a Starsky kiss without five o'clock shadow burn over his top lip. He didn't mind the unusual gentleness, but he knew his partner. Starsky didn't need gentleness after the day he'd had, and he didn't need to follow Edith's prescription and "take it easy." The most effective means of nipping a rare but intense Starsky brooding spell in the bud was a good old-fashioned duke-out.
"Starsky? What do you say we head over to the Main Street Gym, put on some gloves and headgear, and spar up a good appetite? Maybe take that appetite to the new Italian buffet place on Broadway and then rent a couple of movies to pop in the VCR while the soup's simmering? We can let tonight be our own Fourth of July celebration. Make up for me pulling two shifts tomorrow at Memorial."
Starsky tugged him close by the neckline of his t-shirt and kissed him square in the center of the forehead. "And you'll let me pack my plate with whatever I want at the Italian place without nagging my ear off about fat and calories and cholesterol?"
"For tonight, I'll forget I ever cracked open a medical textbook."
"All right." Starsky shimmied in place. "What about Memorial? No chance they'll call you in?"
"I'll take my pager. If they want me bad enough to page me, I'll call in and see what the crisis is. Starting next week, Memorial will own me lock, stock, and barrel until that trauma fellowship is awarded, so let's make the most of the time we have now."
"You're on. And 'cause you're being such a pal and I love your face, I'll let you drive."
Hutch barely held on to his deadpan expression. "The joy, the euphoria, I'm giddy."
Starsky pushed him toward the archway. "Hurry up already. I can taste the manicotti and lasagna."
The Main Street Gym had flourished under Booker Wayne's ownership, with mobster-sportsman Gavin out of the way. Booker's eyes had long ago opened to how the world could run if good men weren't careful, and he'd lived up to his promise as a champion prize-fighter. Wealthy but disabled by his late twenties, he'd returned to his roots, determined to give other young boxers the big break they needed to live the dream. Booker Wayne had "joined the human race" in 1977. Less than a decade later, he was a pillar of the society in which he'd taken an interest.
Gym bags slung over their shoulders, Starsky and Hutch stood just inside the main training room for a minute, observing the action. In the smaller corner ring two white boys in their late teens, fully geared up, danced around each other, shadowboxing. A younger Latino guy was whaling on the speed bag. A lanky, tightly muscled black kid, maybe twenty, and a flashback to Booker when they'd first met him, had full command of the free-standing heavy bag while a bulkier blond teenager pep-talked him.
Starsky had just noticed a few telltale tattoos on several of the kids when he heard Booker's standard greeting shouted across the room. "Centurions, ride!"
Smiling brightly, Hutch led the way over to the gym owner/coach. Time had been kind to Booker save for one drastic change. From head to toe he looked virtually the same, perhaps a few pounds heavier here and there, but the sweatshirt sleeve pinned to his right shoulder proved life's talent for throwing curveballs.
Shaking Booker's left hand, Starsky meant to say something cheerful and encouraging, but the first words out of his mouth were, "You let gang members train here now, Book?"
Hutch elbowed him in the side. Booker's smile thinned, but he nodded them over to a quieter corner. "Ex-gang members, so lower your weapon, Mr. Ex-poh-lice man. These kids are a lot like me, trying to pull themselves out of the slime, get it? And I tell you, it's easier to join a gang than it is to leave. They in danger most of the time from the crowds they used to run with. I give them a safe place to hide out and work on their real-world survival skills until they can get outta town for good."
Starsky clasped the younger man's shoulder. "Sorry. I just saw the tattoos and--"
"Yeah, I get asked questions. Hey, listen, I even got me a grant to work with these kids. You believe it? Taught myself to hunt and peck with my left hand and typed up the forms myself. Hell, man, I got ex-banger girls coming here to work the bags. Got me a new women's locker room, everything."
Hutch gave Booker a much-deserved salute. "You got a grant out of this government to work with gang kids? Booker, my man, next time I need a lesson on how to work the system to better the greater good, I'm coming to you."
Under his thin mustache, Booker's small smile had more life and pride in it than a loud whoop and dance. "It's a good life. Look, see that white kid over there at the heavy bag? Bigots in this town think gangs are just a black and Chicano thing. Hell, no. That kid was climbing the ladder in Whyt Naytion, one of the toughest white gangs in the city. Half them cats would've put a .9-caliber hole through K'Shawn's forehead just 'cause K's a brothah. He came in here one day, wanting out, wanting somewhere to hide, couldn't even look me in the eye. Now, six weeks later, look at him. He's K'Shawn's sparring partner and closest buddy. Coaches him good as I do."
"You're doin' good, Booker," Starsky said. "Doin' real good. You still hear from Spence? I know he's gotta be proud of you."
Booker nodded. "We talk on the phone now and again and he's been down a few times from Oregon to visit. His oldest kid's a senior in high school. Man, I tell you, I don't know where time goes." He fingered the pinned-up sleeve where his right arm used to be.
"Better for time to fly than drag, right?" Hutch asked.
Booker eyed him in that sudden sharp way of his. "Meaning, do I miss being in the action?"
Hutch looked uncomfortable. Starsky said, "Hey, look around. You're still in the action."
"Oh, yeah? Lemme ask you something, Starsky. Teaching at the Academy? It the same as walking the street behind a badge?"
Starsky wondered when someone had smeared the inside of his lips with superglue. He could hardly get his mouth open. "I hear ya."
Now Booker looked uncomfortable. "Yeah, no sweat, man. I know you weren't ready for, you know, any more than I was ready for a bone infection to take my arm. Who sees that coming?"
Hutch cleared his throat. "I like what you've done with the place, Booker. You have time for us to get in that main ring and do a little sparring?"
"Hey, I always got time for you guys. You might draw a few spectators. I've told these young Turks about you two, trying to get 'em to see that The Man--or the ex-Man--ain't always out to pound people into the pavement."
The updated locker room still had the tang of stale sweat and gym soap. Hutch pulled shorts and tank top, socks and boxing shoes, and mouth-guard case out of the duffle while Starsky did the same beside him. "A little bitterness still there," he said, knowing Starsky would follow his train of thought right to Booker.
"Guess it's understandable. No one expects his career to end before he hits thirty."
"And he had the highlight match of his career still ahead of him. At least when we quit the force this last time, we'd gotten as far as two inner city street cops could hope to."
Hutch felt tension tighten his neck and spread to his shoulders. Damn. Starsky was down to the one-word communication that always left Hutch feeling he would get more sense out of a turtle. Shedding jeans, keeping both eyes and ears on his partner, he realized Starsky was hum-singing under his breath while he exchanged his street clothes for gym wear. "Mama, take this badge off'a me..."
Jesus! Hutch had nothing against Bob Dylan, but Starsky did a decent imitation, and every sad-voiced word tore into Hutch's heart, reopening wounds, drawing blood. "Starsky--"
Starsky went silent, stiffening. "Hutch, we here to spar or we here to talk?"
"I just want you to know both of my ears are wide open when you do want to talk."
"I got it. Thanks."
"Okay. Sparring mitts or full boxing gloves?"
Starsky looked down at his balled fists. "Gloves. Let's really work up a sweat."
"Sounds like a plan. You wrap my hands; I'll wrap yours?"
Starsky flashed him a grin and shot a quick glance around the empty locker room. "Long as you let me put in your mouth-guard."
Hutch could already feel Starsky's thumb stroking his lips before slipping the protective plastic inside. He smiled. "How can I refuse an offer like that one?" Something more serious occurred to him. "Don't hold back so much out there, all right?"
He got an intense stare. "Hutch, you know I have to hold back, you know why, damn it."
"No! What happened at the Academy in February won't happen in that boxing ring. You know I'm not asking you to use your special training. I'm saying don't make it easy on me. I want a good work-out. Don't be afraid to throw a few hard punches. That's what the padded leather headgear and mouth-guards are for. You won't hurt me."
"I'll throw 'em hard if you throw 'em hard."
Hutch smirked. "Better have your best one-two combo on tonight then, old man, because with that headgear on you, I won't worry about your bandaged forehead gash."
They took turns warming up with one of the tear-drop shaped speed bags. By the time they reached the ring, Booker had indeed gathered a few spectators. Walking past two kids in Puerto Rico Pride t-shirts Hutch heard one of the youngsters say to the other, "Coach Booker said that guy's a doctor? He don't look like no doctor I ever seen!"
"No shit," said the other kid. "Coach Booker said he was a cop first, 'member?"
Hoisting himself up under the ropes into the ring, Starsky bounced on the balls of his feet, finding his center and perfect balance for his favorite guard position. Hutch did his own preparatory dance step, rocking toes to heel, practicing jabs and hooks over in one corner. From the look of his practice footwork and punches, leading with his right foot and right fist, Starsky planned to use his natural southpaw stance. Good. That meant a worthwhile sparring match. Hutch pounded his gloves together at the knuckles, signaling his readiness. He saw a flash of light in Starsky's eyes, that competitive spirit rising to the surface. With his leading left gloved fist at eye level, his right fist at his chin, elbow tucked, Hutch went into his guard stance and nodded. Starsky returned the nod with a wink.
Months since they'd had the time to do this, they eased into the match, relearning each other's moves, judging distances with experimental jabs, covering a lot of space in the ring. Watching each other closely, they moved in tighter, punching and blocking, excited murmurs drifting toward them from the onlookers.
Hutch slipped to the side of a jab, then blocked Starsky's powerful cross. Starsky bobbed under Hutch's thrown punch, popping back up with a straight of his own that made contact. After that they went into a flurry of punch-strike combos that brought them closer and closer into each other's personal space until they ended in a boxing clinch.
Reluctant to lose contact with Starsky's hard, sweaty body, Hutch knew he had to break the clinch before Booker turned into a referee and separated them. He pushed back on his rear foot, dancing away, both gloves up in front of his face, happy that Starsky had lost his faraway, lost look from the locker room. Starsky's new energy showed in his agile bobbing and weaving and sophisticated footwork.
"Come on, Doctor Hutch!" someone shouted from ringside.
"Show him how it's done, Mr. Starsky!" yelled another.
"Keep those gloves up!" called Booker.
Hutch threw a rapid straight right that got past Starsky's attempt to fade back out of strike range. He dodged Starsky's defensive return jab, but turned his head at a faint beeping from where he'd left his pager on his sweat-towel in one of the ringside folding chairs. The uppercut thrown from Starsky's left hand caught him on the padding over his jaw and sent him reeling to the mat. Already un-strapping his gloves, Starsky went down on his knees beside Hutch on the mat.
Tossing his gloves, Starsky yanked out his mouth-guard. "Hutch!"
Hutch twisted his neck side to side, lifting a glove to his headgear. From the corner of his eye he saw Booker lean the left side of his body over the ropes.
"Man, it's a good thing you got full gear on," the boxing coach told him. "Or come morning you'd look like you got into a fistfight with Rocky Graziano."
Spitting his own mouth-guard into Starsky's palm, Hutch worked his lips until his tongue cooperated. "New Yorkers are nothing but trouble. Was that my pager going off?"
"Sure was," Booker said. "You got good ears under that padding."
Hutch tapped himself on the headgear roughly over the temple area. "Doctors have to be able to hear a pin drop in a noisy bus station, Booker."
"So do street cops. You had plenty of practice." Starsky was already working on Hutch's left glove. "Damn it, Hutch. You turned your head at the exact wrong time."
"Hey, easy, Starsk." Hutch sat up, rolling his shoulders. "You rang my bell good but it won't show." He faked a scowl. "And it was a lucky punch, chump. I want a rematch."
"Name the time and place." Starsky grinned. "That straight right you got is vicious as ever, buddy boy."
"You guys are fucking tough for a couple ancients," said one of the Puerto Rican kids.
"Language, Raul," said Booker sternly. "Clean mouth now, no problems with refs later."
"Yeah, sorry, Coach Booker."
Down to taped wrists and hands, Hutch let Starsky pull him to his feet. "I need to check my pager and call in. Booker, where's a phone I can use?"
"My office. You know where it is."
"Thanks." Already ducking between the ropes, Hutch took his pager from a helpful young spectator with a smile and hurried off, already psyching himself up to an extra shift at Memorial. Just when Starsky needed him, damn it!
Booker's office was Spartan with only its simple table desk and chair and shelves for extra pads, mitts, and gloves. At least it offered privacy. Hutch didn't recognize the number flashing across the pager's tiny screen, but he pulled the phone across the table to him and punched in the number.
On the third ring, a voice he also didn't recognize answered, "Gibson residence."
"This is Dr. Hutchinson. I think someone at this number dialed my pager by mistake."
"No, Dr. Hutchinson, thank you for getting back to me. This is Jim Gibson. I'm an instructor at the Police Academy. I work with your former partner, David Starsky."
Hutch briefly closed his eyes at the word he most hated to hear in conjunction with the word partner. "How did you get this number?"
"The receptionist at Memorial gave me your residence number and your pager when I told her I was affiliated with the Academy. Is that a problem?"
Hutch understood then. He massaged his brow. "Uh, no, and call me Hutch."
"Thanks, Hutch. I tried your home number first, and--um, well, I realized it's the same number I have on file for Starsky's home number."
At the curious inflection in Gibson's voice, Hutch wanted to slam the phone down and walk away. The last thing Starsky needed was the rumor mill opening for new business. Trying for casual, he said, "And you heard his voice on the machine. Yeah. We're housemates."
"Oh. I didn't know."
"What can I do for you, Mr. Gibson?"
"Please, it's Jim. Starsky and I co-teach a session called Emergency Awareness next week, and I'm in charge of lining up guest speakers. I'd heard that you're an ER physician now, and I thought, man, an ex-cop doctor? Who'd be better to talk to the cadets about what they can expect after line-of-duty injuries, how to respond to trauma in the field, keeping a good relationship between the police force and emergency room personnel, that kind of thing. Would you be interested in giving a guest lecture? Maybe an hour, hour-and-a-half tops? Next Wednesday?"
Hutch wished to hell Starsky had been his usual curious self and trailed him to Booker's office. Then he could've had Starsky's ear on the other side of the receiver and his body language to go by in framing a reply. He had a feeling there was a reason he hadn't gotten an invitation to speak at any of the Academy sessions since he'd graduated from medical school...and he had an idea what the reason was. What cave had Jim Gibson lived in for the last however long?
"Thanks for the invite, Jim, but I need to check my schedule. Can I let you know tomorrow?"
"Sure, and if you can swing it, give me the fax number there at Memorial, and I'll send you a copy of the topics I'd like you to cover."
"Sounds good. I'll do that."
"So, you share a house with your old partner? How's that work?"
"Well, you see, Jim, the key word is partner. Starsky and I had one of the strongest partnerships in the history of the BCPD. After his--his shooting in '79, I moved in with him when he needed a little help in recovery, and it worked out so well we decided not to tamper with a good thing."
"I'm impressed. No, really. My wife and I get in each other's hair all the time, and we have the incentive of a little, you know, fringe benefit once or twice a week."
The matter-of-fact acceptance in Gibson's voice started a tug-of-war inside Hutch. His practical side knew it was better, safer for Starsky that Gibson bought the platonic roommate scenario; his male ego wanted to brag that he and Starsky considered it a dry spell if they didn't get in some fringe benefits at least three times a week. His practical side won.
"It's not a hair-braiding peace commune for us all the time. Sometimes we act like a remake of The Odd Couple, but in this trickle-down economy, it's hard to knock what two incomes can do. Sharing expenses kept me from living on ramen noodles all through med school, and we were getting a little long in the tooth for bachelor apartments."
"Yeah, I know how that is." Jim laughed. "So, which of you is neat-freak-Lemmon and which one's who-cares-Matthau? Or do I even need to ask?"
"You might be surprised. Look, Jim, it's been good talking to you. I'll check my schedule and let you know tomorrow so you can find someone else if you need to."
"No problem." At the click and dial tone, he hung up the phone and stared into space, wondering if he'd played it right, or if he'd done Starsky more harm than good. He was still replaying the conversation in his head when the door swung open ahead of a strutting Starsky who'd tucked his headgear under arm.
"Hutch, you off the phone? I've been out there talking to those kids. Those are great kids. Booker's done a helluva job with them, I'm telling-- Hutch? What's wrong? You talk to Memorial? Ah, man, you gotta go in? Damn. Booker told me that new Italian place delivers, and we were talking about ordering in. Give those kids a good meal here at the gym."
Hutch blinked out of his weighty thoughts. "What? No, not Memorial."
"You mean you don't have to go in? Wait. Not Memorial? Who else would page you besides Memori al? Wrong number? You were in here a long time for a misdial."
"Try Jim Gibson from the Academy. He wants me for a guest speaker at next week's Emergency Awareness class."
Starsky stared at him for a few seconds. "How in hell did Jim get your pager number? I thought only Memorial, God, and I knew that number."
"We have a new second shift receptionist. Maureen's on days right now. I told the girl if anyone called from the Academy when I wasn't on, she needed to make sure they knew how to reach me. After February, Starsk, I wanted to be sure I'd know if--"
Starsky came over, dropped his headgear on the table beside its mate, and squeezed Hutch's shoulders. "Shh. I get it."
"Maureen would've known to take a message and page me herself, but the new girl took a shortcut. God, I'm sorry, Starsky."
"Hey, can the apology. You know I got no problem with you having a little peace of mind, however you can get it. It's no big deal."
"No big deal? Starsky, the guy practically interrogated me--nicely, I'll admit--about our living arrangements. I thought all the senior staff out there knew. Unofficially."
"Yeah, well, Jim's new. This is only his second session. He did active duty with the LVPD and started with the Academy in Nevada. Moved out here with his wife to be closer to her parents. Jim's one of the least gossipy cops you'll ever meet. If any of the other instructors are still talkin' about us behind my back, I doubt Jim paid attention to it. How'd you handle it?"
"I cast us as The Odd Couple, eighties-style."
Starsky's lips curved in a quick smile. "He bought it?"
"Sounded like it. Starsky, why am I just now getting the invite?"
"We divided the labor at the beginning of session, and Jim wanted to be in charge of guest speakers for this class. I shoulda seen this coming. Could've spared you an awkward phone call, but I've been so distracted with everything else going on out there."
"No, Starsky, I mean why is this the first time ever?"
"Uh-huh, oh. That's the little question I've had running in my head since the phone call, and I need it answered before I call Jim back and tell him yea or nay."
"This is the first session I've had the class since you graduated from med school. And, yeah, there's a reason for that, I don't have to tell you. I'm sure Richards gets queasy just thinking about us out there together, even for one class. The other instructors probably didn't want to spend half the class watching you field 'give us the dirt on Instructor Starsky' questions. It's common knowledge we were partners."
"And still are," Hutch said quickly.
Again he got a flash of Starsky's teeth in a hot little smile. "Yeah. If I had my way, that'd be common knowledge, too."
"Same here, Starsky. Okay. If you'd been the solo instructor for this class, would you have asked me to come out there?"
Starsky's face turned serious in the blink of an eye. "No. First, I know you're not thrilled with public speaking. Second, well, it's the subject matter: line-of-duty injuries, trauma in the field, dealing with emergency rooms as cops. Jim probably thought you'd give a great talk 'cause you've been there, on both sides of the table, but me, I know it'd be a hard talk for you 'cause you've been there. Make sense?"
"You bet it does. Do you want me to tell Jim to find someone else?"
"It's up to you, Hutch. Jim's right: you would give a top-flight talk. If you think you can handle a room full of cadets for an hour or so, it'd be awesome having you there."
"What about where things stand for you out there right now? Would it cause problems if I show up in your class? I can handle the 'when you guys were partners' stuff, but is anyone likely to pop a few personal questions?"
"You mean a cadet? Doubt it. I keep my personal life off Academy grounds, especially around cadets, and they don't have access to the places where staff members hang around shooting the breeze. If it happens, we can always tell them you're not there to satisfy their curiosity."
"Which sounds like pleading the Fifth."
Starsky cradled Hutch's cheeks in warm, taped hands, squeezed gently and let go with a light tap to the right cheek. "We went through all this when we decided to live together. I won't outright lie about what we got. You're too important to me. We might have to tell a few veiled truths, but I won't lie."
"Neither will I. There's nothing in the world worth that high a price."
Starsky flicked his thumb over the bridge of Hutch's nose. "Right. So, I was trying to remember our bottom line on the budget this month. I think we got enough to pitch in and help Booker spring for some Italian delivery."
"Definitely. It's the least we can do, when he lets us use the facilities here gratis. While we're waiting on the food, let's get back in that ring." Hutch grabbed his headgear and tossed Starsky's to him. "I can't let you have the last word on the mat that easily."
"You sure? I think my left cross has a lotta juice tonight."
Hutch swatted him on the butt. "Good. Let's show those kids what a couple of 'ancients' we're not. Winner gets to pick the movie at the video place tonight."
Starsky slid his arm around Hutch's waist, tugging him close to bump hips. "You got yourself a rematch, sucker. What letter are we up to?"
"G, I think. Yeah. Last time I got Hitchcock's Frenzy. We're up to G."
"Hot damn." Starsky bopped hips with him again. "I know what I'm getting if I win."
"I'm afraid to ask, but what?"
"Oh, for God's sake. It wasn't enough for you to drag me to that one in the theater?"
"What? It's worth a second look. Flying green ectoplasms, wacky scientists, Sigourney Weaver doing her sex-crazed ghost possession thing, and I know you think Bill Murray's hilarious."
"If you can't beat 'em..." At the door, Hutch belted out, "'I ain't afraid of no ghosts!'"
"And if they're out of that one, there's always The Goonies. Hey! Maybe I'll get both."
"I swear to God," Hutch groaned, "sometimes you make me feel like a sugar-daddy out with his sexy young thing."
Before Hutch could open the door, Starsky tweaked his ass between two knuckles in a pinch Hutch felt through the gym shorts and all the way to his cock. "Buy me some Reese's cups at the video store, sugar-daddy?"
"You might be able to talk me into it."
Monday, July 7th, 1986
Starsky stared at his class full of bright-eyed and bushy-tailed cadets. Amazing, what a long holiday weekend could do to give the full-timers a second wind the last month before graduation! But something was off... "I'm missing a couple people." Starsky had expected not to see Myers's smug face, but where the hell were Leitner and Kent? "Anybody hear from Leitner or Kent over the weekend?" Gracie Holm raised her hand. "Yes, Cadet?"
"Sir, yes sir. Cadet Leitner won't be..." Her voice choked. "Won't be coming back, sir."
"Why not?" Starsky demanded, too shocked to tell her he'd speak to her privately later.
"Sir, Commandant Richards called him at home yesterday and told him not to report for class today. That's not all, sir. Keith told me Cadet Kent got the same phone call from the commandant."
Starsky's instinct was to storm out of the classroom and blow into Richards's office like a category five hurricane, but he counted to ten and tried to strategize. Richards would just love to write him up for leaving cadets unsupervised. Better not to give the bastard ammunition. Yeah. He would wait until the cadets' mid-morning PT break.
"All right. This morning we're discussing the alphabet soup of government agencies you'll rub elbows and butt heads with as cops. Title of this course is Interagency Cooperation. Reality, ladies and gents? That's a contradiction in terms, most'a the time. I'll give you some real-world tips on how to get and give the right kind of cooperation when it matters most."
Hutch shuddered as soon as the trauma room's door swung shut behind him.
Mannigan adjusted his stethoscope and waited. "Problem, Hutch?"
"I'm trying not to picture the mechanism of injury, but my mind won't stop. Admissions counselor, setting up a booth at a college day fair, falls while trying to staple a picture high up on the display, and staples her eyelid shut instead?"
"I've seen stranger, and more severe. She was lucky to escape with minor damage to the sclera. We'll call for surgical consult, but I think she'll come out with no permanent loss of vision or field restriction."
"And I thought puncture wounds could be nasty."
Mannigan nodded. "Welcome to ophthalmologic trauma rotation."
"Gee, thanks." Hutch wove to the side to dodge a rushing nurse headed for Examination Five, and gestured for Mannigan to join him on the safer side of the hallway by the main X-ray illuminator. "Speaking of trauma rotations, I know we're supposed to be here for every minute of them, but I've been asked to give a talk at the Academy Wednesday. I would've mentioned it over the weekend, but we didn't have a spare second."
"We rarely do on a Fourth of July weekend." Mannigan thrust his hands in his lab coat pockets and pierced Hutch with a stare. "Your partner wants to take advantage of your new expertise?"
"Actually, another instructor invited me. I called him Friday and told him I'd do it, because my schedule at home showed me on for a double starting with second shift. I got here this morning and saw on the board where you have me down for first and second."
"Yes. Before she left this morning, Carmen Moreno told me she needed to switch her morning shift on Wednesday with someone. Very unusual for her to have a special request, so I agreed. This is the Emergency Awareness class you're talking about?"
"Yeah." Hutch bit his tongue to silence a sharp complaint. Would've been nice for Mannigan to ask before he tinkered with the scheduling, but trivialities like that never occurred to the chief of emergency medicine, and probably never would. "Do I need to call and back out? I'd hate to put Jim Gibson in a bind having to get a new guest speaker on such short notice."
He would hate even more to let Starsky down, and lose his chance to see his partner in action in the classroom, but he sure as hell couldn't say that or Mannigan would handcuff him to a trauma table instead of letting him out of Memorial on a trauma rotation day.
"I've given that lecture more than a few times over the years. You're prepared to talk to cadets about facing potentially fatal trauma in the line of duty?"
Hutch hoped he didn't look glassy-eyed under that hypnotic Mannigan stare with both eyebrows arched. "I'm not naïve, Trevor. I know it won't be the easiest thing I've ever done, but I can offer a few insights as someone who's seen both sides of the issues, and that might help save a cop's life one day."
Mannigan didn't smile, but his eyebrows leveled out, and he ran a hand over his slightly mussed hair. "You'll need three hours away from Memorial that day? Go ahead and fulfill your obligation. I'll consider it part of your preparation as a fellowship candidate."
"Really?" Hutch held in a gasp of surprise. "I didn't expect--"
"Do you remember the discussion we had after Detective Simmons's death? My concern was that you'd developed a mental block regarding police-related injuries, specifically gunshot wounds. Your willingness to give this talk is an excellent sign that you're moving past that mental block. I'll encourage that forward progress however I can."
"The commandant will see you now." Patsy's cheerful voice carried well from her corner desk.
A real nice lady, the commandant's secretary, and normally Starsky would have had a smile of his own for her, maybe a joke or two. Patsy collected cop jokes the way some people built wine cellars for large stashes of vintage grape. That morning Starsky had only a brusque nod for her, as regulation as the dark navy skirt and white blouse Patsy wore.
He had fewer social niceties than that for Commandant Asshole-Fink Richards.
Hutch turned from holding a patient chart up in the lounge's bright fluorescent lighting, unwilling to believe that he needed reading glasses already. He smiled at Neena, one of the nurse's aides. "It's Hutch, Neena. We're in the lounge, not a trauma room."
"Right, Hutch. Maureen wanted me to tell you she's transferring a call here to the lounge." The phone on Hutch's table buzzed, line-one red light blinking. "And there it is."
"Thanks." She smiled, ducking back out of the room as he lifted the receiver. "Dr. Hutchinson."
"Tell me two really good things off the top of your head," said a gruff-sexy voice.
Hutch eyed the closed lounge door. "You'll find pot roast and veggies in the crock pot when you get home, and I might get out of here by eleven tonight."
"Ah, hell yeah! We might sprawl out in our own spaces during the night, but damn, I'm a happy man when I can get in a little pre-sleep bed time with you."
In disbelief, Hutch held the receiver away from his ear then tapped his earlobe with it. "Starsk? You are calling from the Academy? From your office?"
"Yeah, behind closed doors. Don't start on me about discretion. This morning the cold war between me and Richards turned hot, so I got no patience right now for his double standards. Anyone wants to listen at my office keyhole, it's their fault what they hear."
"Okay, okay, easy, buddy. What's going on?"
"How's your ophthma--optima--eye-trauma thing going?"
"Ophthalmology trauma mini-rotation. It's an eyeful."
Starsky overdid a pained moan. "I don't need cabbage for lunch, Hutch."
"Asshole. You used to laugh at my jokes."
"Must've been in my fantasies, I guess."
"So, the trauma thing?"
"I'm learning that I hate the human eyeball, Starsky, and I hate it worst of all when it's had things done to it that should never be done to the human eyeball. What happened with Commandant Richards?"
"He expelled Leitner and Kent. The son-of-a-bitch didn't show me the respect of calling to let me know. Found out this morning when they didn't show for class. I confronted him during the mid-morning break. The whole Academy probably heard our dust-up."
"Ouch! Why? I mean, what reasons did he give you for bouncing them?"
"Reasons he can put down on paper, you mean? Oh, some bullshit about Kent lying on his application when he didn't list his blood phobia in the section about any physical or mental condition that might impede his ability to perform the duties of a police officer. Leitner got the ax 'cause that bastard Hobart finked to Richards about Leitner's slip with firearm safety after my class a couple weeks ago."
"All right, I can see the timing with the Kent thing. It makes sense in the fascist world of Richards. But why Leitner, why now? I don't believe for a second that Hobart waited even a day to narc to Richards about something like that."
"Hutch, doctoring on people has only made you smarter, you know? Yeah, it's a purpose deal. Richards is trying to get at me. Undermine my position with the cadets, the whole dirty shooting match. He told me if I reconsidered my stance on Myers, he might consider leniency for Leitner and Kent."
Hutch chewed on the bottom end of his ballpoint pen, grimacing at the filthy taste, and dropped it down on his charting. "Damn. Must not be all to do with you then. Sounds like Myers has connections trying to work this from the inside."
"Wouldn't surprise me. Myers's old man probably plays golf with the mayor or something. He comes from money, I know that much."
"I'm surprised Richards just didn't overrule your expulsion of the creep."
"Nope. Richards is a two-faced lousy rat fink, but he's no dummy. He knows that would land him in the middle of a staff riot. The other FTOs and instructors would see it as jeopardizing their authority. But the manipulative asshole thought he could twist my arm using Leitner and Kent!"
"What did you tell him, as if I didn't already know?"
"Damn right you know. I basically told him to stuff it. Myers isn't fit for police work, Hutch. He'd be a danger to whoever he got partnered with. No way I'm letting him back in after what he did. I'll have to find some other way to help Leitner and Kent."
"I'm sorry, Starsky. God, I'm sorry."
Starsky gave a resigned sigh. "Yeah, it's a squeeze play. Richards wants me out, and he's making sure I feel it. I tell a little too much truth around here, I don't portray cops as gods with badges, I don't kiss his commandant ass, I won't cut my hair down to some ridiculous military length, I encourage the cadets to have brains of their own, and I share my bed with a man. Well, if he thinks I'll walk and save him the trouble of firing me, he better not hold his breath. I don't go down that easy."
"You never did, you never will, thank Christ. I wish to hell I could get out of here earlier tonight. We could swing by Booker's gym and do some whaling on the speed bag. Hit the ring again maybe."
That prompted a Starsky chuckle. "You're just determined to keep on 'til you beat me."
"I almost had you Thursday. You were fading fast. If I could've landed one more straight right, I would've had your ass. It was just your night for that punishing left cross, that's all." Hutch smiled. "I had a great time with you, Starsky. We need to do that more often."
"Yeah, it was incredible. Ghostbusters and The Goonies in the same night."
"Watch it, clown. I hate there's nothing I can do right now to make it all go away, these head games Richards is pulling on you. I'm here for you, Starsky. You know that, right?"
"I know. You did make it all go away for a few minutes. I'm not lookin' around for nails to chew now. Listen, since you're stuck there this evening, I think I'll drive down to Los Alamitos real quick after I get outta here, look in on Leitner and his mom, maybe drop by Kent's on the way back."
"You watch that lead foot, Starsky."
"Don't give me that. You know what I mean. You've had a blow-out this morning, you're all riled up, and the hotter your temper runs, the heavier your foot weighs on the accelerator. I don't want you out there gunning for a Formula 1 speed record on the freeway this evening."
"You're the sexiest spoilsport alive, Hutch."
"Listen, pal, I wouldn't ride your ass if I didn't care." A loud bark of laughter sounded across the line. Hutch felt his face heat from hairline to chin. "I didn't mean it that way."
"Yeah, but it did me a world'a good. Oh! Almost forgot. Cadet Holm told me Leitner's dad is still missing. Current word is he went missing in Costa Lucia instead of Honduras."
"Costa Lucia? Isn't that the tiny country with a civil war raging and a recent Cholera outbreak?"
"You got it, just one of several countries down there with nasty in-fighting."
Hutch tapped his pen viciously on the table. "That poor Leitner kid has to be out of his head. Costa Lucia's probably the worst place in Central America for someone to disappear right now."
"No fooling. I gotta run, Hutch. Five minutes until afternoon lecture."
"All right. I'm looking forward to tonight, Starsky."
"Me too, gorgeous. Bye."
Hutch stared at the sheet pinned to the physician locker room bulletin board, rubbed his eyes, stared again, and decided reading glasses would be an excellent investment if looking through them could change what he was reading.
"I keep forgetting to talk to you about that," said Mannigan behind him.
Hutch pointed at the sheet with Mannigan's nearly illegible scribble, the extended schedule for trauma fellowship candidates' mini-rotations. "Why am I listed at Lincoln Hospital for the two-week GI mini-rotation in September?"
"Frank Reid coordinates that rotation here, and he flat-out refuses to include you in it this year."
"Jesus!" Hutch hand-scrubbed his whole face, too tired for this. "Is this because of that patient we admitted in June? The young uninsured guy Reid wanted to toss to the outpatient wolves? He had a rare intestinal parasite that could've killed him if he'd been left undiagnosed and untreated another week."
"How do you know all that?" Mannigan asked sharply.
Hutch shrugged. "I followed up with his Attending on Med/Surg."
"Hutch, when patients leave our department, they're no longer our responsibility."
"Right, and I guess I shouldn't ask why you don't sound surprised about the patient's intestinal parasite, just surprised that I knew."
Mannigan's expression didn't change. "I checked into the case when I realized Reid was trying to roadblock you. I told him he could thank you that he isn't handing over his Maserati and villa in Palm Springs to some medical malpractice lawyer, but I wasn't able to sway him."
"You admitted the patient. He should be thanking you."
"You brought him to my attention. Some residents would have taken a department chief at his or her word and discharged the patient without a second thought." Mannigan scratched at the neckline of his scrub top. "Unfortunately, as I warned you in June, Reid's the kind of man who doesn't concern himself with what-ifs. He feels you questioned his clinical judgment and says he won't waste his time sharing his expertise with you in September, when you obviously don't want the benefit of it."
"That's bullshit! Are we adults or junior high kids in opposing cliques?"
"I made a similar observation. Reid's impervious."
"So you're shipping me over to Lincoln for two weeks in September?"
"I called and spoke to Gary Westbrook, the head of their emergency department. He said he'd be glad to have you. He has a lot of pull with the GI specialists who admit over at Lincoln. Anything comes through their ER that would fit into a standard GI mini-rotation over here, you'll get first crack at it."
"Thank you, Trevor."
"This isn't a personal favor, Hutch. I won't have any doctor's chance at that fellowship thrown away because he did what was best for a patient. Just remember: if you're going to care more about patients than your career, you'll need to learn some fancy diplomatic footwork whether you like it or not. If you don't, you'll end up practicing in a backwater community hospital after department heads here make the water too hot for you."
"If guys like Reid think I'm worried about that they don't know me very well. Patients at backwater community hospitals are human beings in need of medical care, too."
Mannigan didn't show one hint of smile, but he nodded. "That attitude is why I made arrangements for you at Lincoln. I'm just warning you that I may not always be able to shield you from the fallout."
Hutch waited with the last of his patience until his supervising physician had left the locker room before he threw a punch at the mini-rotation schedule.
Frowning, Hutch listened to the silence in his living room. He'd hoped to find Starsky stretched out on the couch in front of the last half of the eleven o'clock news. He'd even showered and changed into fresh khakis and a green jersey at Memorial so he could collapse on the couch the second he got home.
"Starsky?" For another minute silence reigned. Then Starsky entered the room through the hall archway. Hutch tried not to gawk. Bare-chested, Starsky had on the rattiest pair of his blue jeans, darkly soaking wet from the knees down. "What the hell?"
"Some blond so-and-so with the memory of a turkey instead of an elephant kept forgetting to call the washing machine repairman like he said he would! I decided to fix it myself like I said I would."
"Alone?" Hutch shouted back. "With me at Memorial? Damn it, Starsky, I told you--"
"Ease off, willya! It's a washing machine; I'm not out trying to serve a warrant on a mafia kingpin with no back-up. As everybody and his fucking brother keeps reminding me, I'm an ex-cop, remember?"
Hutch caught his breath. If he concentrated on that sting, he might say something they would both regret longer than a quick-flare argument lasted. "If you fixed it, then why are you sopping wet below the knees and leaving watery footprints on the carpet?"
"I did something wrong, you big dummy!"
"Obviously," Hutch said with a sniff.
From three feet away, Starsky wagged a fist at him. "So help me God, Hutch, you get superior on me right now, and I'll wash one of your lab coats with my new red socks on the hot cycle!"
"Oh, yeah? You and what washing machine?"
Starsky's face darkened, and Hutch tensed, his own stress-driven anger thrumming just below the surface, but humor won out, and Starsky plucked at his sopping jeans, snorting laughter. "I had the mother'a shitty days, I just got through mopping up a small pond in the laundry room, I got nothing clean to wear to the Academy tomorrow, and it's late, and I'm wiped, but if you meet me in the bedroom in less than five minutes, I'll fuck you into next week."
Starsky spun in a squish of damp carpet and left a new trail of footprints into the hallway. Blinking, white-hot anger shifting to red-hot desire, Hutch dropped his duffle and went after him.
One step over their bedroom threshold, Hutch got slammed up against the wall beside the tall chest-of-drawers. Starsky's kiss rocked him; he flailed his arms out, elbowing his loving ambusher's hands from his shoulders so he could reach for Starsky's hair, latching his fingers and turning his hands into a cradle while he channeled all his strength into the fierce lip-lock. When Hutch pulled away, his lips felt puffy, glistening, his clean-shaven skin no doubt red mustached from Starsky's late-night stubble. He didn't spare more than a second enjoying the sight of Starsky's own kiss-raw mouth. In record time Starsky had gotten the rest of the way naked; he was flushed across his chest, his cock hard and already straining in its latex sheath.
Hutch felt a rare urge to make him fight for it. He swung Starsky around and up against the wall, dipping his head to "nip" at jaw, neck, shoulder. Starsky snarled and pushed him until he stumbled back a step in the direction of their bed. Hutch pushed back, hands flat against Starsky's chest. They stood staring each other down, then came together in another violent kiss. Pushing, shoving, kissing and evading kisses by turn, they worked together to get Hutch naked. The battle didn't end on the bed. They wrestled, rolled, held each other down, pushed each other off, pulled each other into tight, crushing holds, snapping, snarling obscenities that had nothing to do with sex, and kissed the protest words off each other's lips.
Starsky gentled his touch in contact with Hutch's ass, one finger, two fingers, three, the softness in his stretching showing his love under the roughness, and Hutch rolled over on his stomach, but he got a growl before Starsky pushed him over on his back. Hutch grabbed Starsky by the shoulders and pulled him halfway down for another kiss, rearing and flipping him on to his back. Straddling him, he pressed Starsky down by the shoulders. Panting, drenched in sweat, Starsky slid his hands up Hutch's sides, tightening his grip, readying for another roll.
Hutch called the retreat. Starsky needed something only he could give. In their partnership they didn't fight each other for what they needed. He rolled over without a push from Starsky, opening his arms, receiving his lover in a deep kiss, Starsky reaching under Hutch's thigh, lifting his leg. Hutch could go with the flow, fierce need limbering exhausted muscles for the flexibility to curve them around Starsky's back while Starsky positioned himself, staring down in his eyes, silently pleading. For once Hutch couldn't make out the wordless request. With a harsh cry, Starsky pushed in, one inch, two, three.
Hands on shoulder blades, Hutch drew all ten fingertips hard down Starsky's back, leaving trails of pressure that would show in scratches if he used fingernails. He made a feral face, and Starsky fucked him harder, faster, deeper, all the while shaking his head, staring at Hutch, pleading with his eyes.
Hutch felt words pushing up from his gut, stalling in his throat, then forcing their way out. "What do you need?"
"You!" Starsky shouted hoarsely between thrusts.
Hutch took Starsky's hand and wrapped it around his cock. Braced with one strong arm, Starsky jacked him with the same ragged motion of his fucking. Their bodies slapped together, loud, slick with sweat, hard, but Hutch took Starsky's face between his hands, thumbing his stubbled cheeks, mouthing words he felt too deeply right then to spoil with sound. I'm yours, I'm yours, I'm all yours....
Starsky's eyes, wide, moist, their darkest blue, answered in like kind, then closed, his whole face and body tensing in orgasm. Bowing his back, Hutch tossed his head on the pillows. He shot hard, his cock pushing out of his partner's light hold, and gasped and gasped as Starsky collapsed, racked with shudders, gulping in choppy breaths so quickly Hutch expected him to hyperventilate. Holding him, petting his back, he urged Starsky to slow it down and breathe.
"Get what you needed?" he whispered when Starsky's breathing calmed to normal. He didn't get a reply in words, but Starsky was back to headshaking. "Hey. I wanted it just as much."
Starsky drew away, holding the condom in place as he pulled free. Unhooking his leg from his retreating partner's back, Hutch bit down on a groan and bent his legs, straightened them, and bent them again. Limbered up, he rolled out of bed and followed Starsky to the bathroom. No use lying there with a sticky belly if he couldn't hold his lover through the afterglow.
Brushing his teeth, Starsky moved over to give Hutch room for his own dental hygiene. They shared the sink space, Hutch in the middle of spitting toothpaste when he felt the swipe of warm wash cloth down the crack of his ass. He grinned over his shoulder at Starsky, took a swig of mouthwash from the Scope bottle and gargled and spit.
"We'll be sore in the morning," Hutch said.
"Yep. We're not twenty anymore, but hey, we're not geezers." Starsky hung his toothbrush in the ceramic holder. "I think the washer's a loss. I put together a '69 Fiat Dino Coupe engine from a mound of parts in my youth, but I can't fix a crummy washing machine? I don't think so. It's unfixable."
"Probably. It's nearly seven years old. These days, that's a long time for anything to last."
"Don't say that, f'the love'a God, don't say that!"
Hutch gaped at him. "Starsky, it's a washing machine. Just because it's throwing in the towel instead of washing them doesn't mean the end of the world as we know it is right around the corner."
"You think I'm worried about the washer? Jesus, Hutch, I got a feeling everything I'm standing on is like sand just blowing away, and you think I care shit all about a washing machine?"
That sounded so different, so far removed, from the Starsky he'd known for nearly twenty years, Hutch had no clue how to respond. Of the two of them, he'd always been the one more comfortable vocalizing feelings, emotions. Starsky had neatly turned the tables on him, and Hutch's mind froze.
"You're exhausted, Starsk. I have something that'll fit you well enough to get by tomorrow. I'm not on until second shift. I'll hit the Laundromat in the morning. Maybe this weekend we'll have time to run by a few places and scope out a new washer/dryer combo. Donate our dryer to Goodwill."
"And the broken-down washer?"
Hutch snapped his fingers. "Nate."
"Nate Constantino, your doctor buddy in that whatzit group? What's he got to do with our washer?"
"Not him. His partner, the Cuban artist. I remember Nate saying something about some artist pal of Teddy's who uses broken-down appliances in his artwork. I bet he'd love our washing machine. He might even come pick it up, but if not, I imagine Kiko would let us use the Camino to haul it away."
"Knew there was a reason I kept you around."
"I freaked out a little tonight," Starsky said. He lay on his back in the center of their bed. In the shelter of his arm, Hutch lay snug against him, sharing the pillow, breath warm on Starsky's ear.
"After the day you had, Starsk, you were entitled."
"Guess so. Everywhere I turned today, I got door slams. I rode by Babcock's place again. Nothing doing. At least the Nissan was gone this time. Maybe he's venturing out."
"What you said earlier, Starsky...what is it you think will blow away?"
"Something's coming, I can feel it. Felt it ever since the commissioner showed up at the driving course."
"I know the Academy situation is about as tense as it can get, and I learned a long time ago your hunches carry more weight than some people's hard evidence, but maybe this time your instincts are off. Now that Richards found out he couldn't manipulate you, and you won't cave in under pressure, he might back off, give you room."
Starsky drummed his fingers along Hutch's shoulder. "Nice try, babe. A-plus for effort and extra points for convincing delivery, but you don't really believe that, do ya?"
"No. I want to, but reality hardly ever plays that nice."
"No damn kidding."
"Starsky, whatever does come, we'll face it together. We're partners."
"Hey, if I didn't believe that, I'd'a done a lot more'n a little freaking out tonight."
Yeah? He asked himself. So why'd you go to battle stations when Hutch said that about seven years being a long time to last? Huh? You knew he was talking about a damn appliance, and if you didn't, you need your head shrunk by experts and then re-inflated. Shaking off a chill, Starsky sighed at the continued stroking of Hutch's right foot up and down his shinbone, the glide of flesh on flesh soothing him to sleep.
Wednesday, July 9th, 1986
Starsky whistled down the hall to the auditorium. Five hours. Just five hours, and Hutch would be walking the same hallway, on the Academy grounds with him for the first time since the year they'd given a graduation speech that had dunked them both in hot water with Chief Ryan. Man, what a great hour it would be, watching Hutch stand up there all tall and golden and smarter than ten whips, imparting hard-earned wisdom that might save a young cop's life someday. Starsky couldn't wait. He wanted a magic wand that he could wave and turn five hours into five minutes.
Up ahead he saw Field Training Officer Clifton deep in conversation with Jim Gibson, his co-instructor, in front of the auditorium double doors. They stopped talking when he got within a few feet of them, and both men looked acutely uncomfortable. "Jim. Clifton. We got a problem with the room?"
Clifton shook his head. "No, Sarge. You need to come with me. You won't be teaching today."
"What the--? Says who?"
"Says Commandant Richards."
Gibson's quirk of lips didn't quite make it to a smile. "I'm sorry, Starsky. I'll need your lecture notes. I'm only prepared for my part of the class."
Clifton's flushed, tight-jawed expression hardened. "He has to turn over his briefcase to you anyway, Richards's orders."
Starsky waved his arms in a slicing crisscross, briefcase swinging. "Wait! Hold up. Slow down just one damned second! What the hell is goin' on, Clifton? Where'm I supposed to go with you, and what does my briefcase have to do with it?"
"You have another assignment for the day, Sarge," Clifton said, "and that's all I can tell you until we get to the testing room."
"Testing room?" Starsky took a step backward. He felt his anger running cold instead of hot. "This is 'cause Hutch'll be here later to give his lecture. Richards couldn't stop that, but he's found a way to make sure I won't be in the same classroom. Less chance someone might ask us the wrong questions, that it?"
Gibson looked confused. "That's crazy. Starsky, what are you talking about? Richards might be a hard ass, but why the hell would he have a problem with you and your old partner in the classroom?"
Clifton wouldn't meet Gibson's eye, or Starsky's.
"There's not a damn thing old, former, or past tense about my partnership with Hutch, that's why. Figure that one out, Jim." Starsky handed over his briefcase. "Good luck with the class. You tell Hutch I'm okay, and I'll call him later."
Following Clifton back down the hall, Starsky stared a hole in the big man's dark rifle range shirt, unable to look left or right, feeling gut punched, torn and twisted, chewed up and spit out. Damn Richards! This could throw Hutch for a loop and off his rhythm with his lecture. Starsky imagined him worried, distracted, stuttering through his talk and embarrassed by his lapse. If Hutch had a rough time in the talk because of that bastard in the commandant's office, Richards would need a one-way ticket to Stalingrad if he wanted to get off Starsky's shit list.
Inside the testing room, furnished only with a proctor's podium and several rows of tables and chairs, Clifton went straight to the podium and clicked on a tape recorder. "Candidate for assessment entered examination room at precisely--" he looked at his watch, "0735 hours on July 9th, 1986. Candidate has no briefcase with him." Clifton clicked off the recorder. "Lose the jacket, Sarge. I need to pat you down."
"Pat me--?" Starsky shrugged out of his blazer and tossed it on to the nearest table. He lifted his arms. Clifton gave him the standard pat-down and asked him to empty his pockets. "Why, f'crying out loud?"
"Just do it, Sarge. Don't make this any harder than it already is. I don't want to be here, I just drew the short straw, and didn't even know I was drawing." Starsky emptied the front pockets of his work slacks: wallet, keys, spare change, and other sundries went into a pile on his discarded blazer. "Okay." Clifton nodded at his hands. "Let me see your palms." Starsky held out his hands, palms up.
After a brief glance, Clifton returned to the tape recorder on the podium. "Candidate for assessment has emptied his pockets. He has no papers concealed on his person, and nothing written on his palms." Clicking the machine off again, he looked up. "Sit down over there at the second row center table. You'll find your exam materials and sharpened pencils. Don't open the exam booklet until I tell you."
Starsky took his seat as directed and glanced down at the pale blue examination booklet with its official BCPD seal. The words underneath that seal nearly made his eyes pop out. "Jesus Christ, Clifton! This is the written section of the lieutenant's exam."
"Not this year's. That's all I know."
Starsky narrowed his eyes. "This isn't just busy work Richards drummed up to keep me out of the way while Hutch is here. Huh? Tell me. This is more'n that. He thinks he has a way to use this exam to force me out. Guys up for promotion take months to prep for one of these, but I'm supposed to just sit here and take it cold? No advance warning?"
Clifton slammed both hands down on the podium. "I don't know what Richards is up to. He called me into his office this morning and gave me my orders: proctor this exam. Yeah, a few of the instructors here would like to see you booted all the way up to the Castro, but you have friends here, too; I'm one of them. You're one of the best instructors I've ever seen. You and Hutch could fuck in the middle of the freeway, and you'd get run over or arrested, or both, but you'd still be one of the best instructors I've ever seen. If Richards pulls anything underhanded to get you fired, your friends here will raise a stink they'll smell all the way in Sacramento. You want my advice? Can your anger, cool your heels, and beat the son-of-a-bitch at his game. Ready to start the exam?"
Starsky took a deep breath, flexed his hands, cracked his knuckles and shook himself, shedding invisible weight from his shoulders. Hutch, if you were here you'd be telling me I could pass this damn exam in my sleep. You might tease and taunt me, but when it comes down to it, I know you believe I got more than enough brains to do the job. Any job. I can do this. Yeah. I can.
He nodded at Clifton. "Let's do it."
"All right." Clifton gave him a smile. "Open your booklet." He looked at his watch again, clicking the recorder button. "Candidate for assessment opened exam booklet at 0744 hours."
"Hutch, we need you in Receiving!"
The alarm in Caroline's voice turned Hutch from his study of a sinus X-ray on the illuminator. Like Bambi, Caroline rarely raised her voice in an emergency situation. Higher volume meant she needed a doctor STAT, and that doctor had better run, not walk. Hutch had perfected the ER run-stride.
He arrived in Receiving just as paramedics wheeled in the gurney, Caroline keeping pace at the stretcher's side. Hutch had to control a flinch at the patient's angry head and facial burns that likely spread down the neck under the protective blankets the emergency personnel had draped.
"Twenty-four-year-old female," the senior paramedic said. "Had something on the stove and left it unattended while doing some kind of home perm. Fire started on the stove, and she tried to put it out without rinsing off the flammable chemicals in her hair."
"Dear God," Caroline said.
"Roommate's training to be an EMT; came in from morning class right when it happened. Threw a towel over her head and log-rolled her, and then called it in."
"Is the roommate injured?" Hutch asked. "Are we looking at two burn victims?"
"Nothing serious," Caroline answered. "She drove herself and actually beat the ambulance. Superficial burns on her hand and wrist. I have Dr. Oates looking at her."
Listening to the other paramedic recite the vitals, Hutch couldn't tune out the agonized whimpers from the semi-conscious young woman. He reached under the blankets, and, finding her left hand free of burns, gripped it in his own. "Name?" he asked the medics.
He shot them an impatient look. "No, first name."
"Jo-Lynn? Don't try to move your head or respond. I'm Hutch, the doctor who'll be treating you. You've been badly burned, and I know you're hurting and scared. Just listen to my voice, feel my hand. I'm right here with you. You're not alone. You won't be alone. I'll be watching over you until it's time for you to go somewhere else in the hospital where they take care of burn patients. Squeeze my hand if you hear me."
"Which room, Doc?" asked the younger paramedic.
Jo-Lynn squeezed Hutch's hand. He smiled down at her, aware that she likely had little clear sight in her damaged eyes. "Good girl. Stay with us. Trauma Five," Hutch said to the medics as they came to the corner that turned on to the trauma corridor. "Caroline, I see evidence of inhalation injury. Have a #8 tube set up and call upstairs to the burn center. Get them ready to receive when we've stabilized. We'll need a baseline arterial blood gas, and have Hartmann's ready to go. Mannigan?"
"He's in Trauma Three with an MVA victim," Caroline answered. "Hemorrhage, shock, the full ride. Dr. Westley's in Exam Four with a cerebral bleed, and Dr. Jergen has a status asthmaticus in Respiratory Two. We're slammed against the wall today. I think you're calling the shots on this one."
Hutch nodded. "Well, it's what I trained for." He squeezed the patient's hand again. "Jo-Lynn, looks like we're in this together, you and me. You just try to relax, and stay calm. I'm going to let go of your hand now, Jo-Lynn, so the paramedics can wheel you into the room where I'll be doing my best to make you feel better. But I'm not going anywhere."
For one necessary second he lingered outside Trauma Five and thumbed the embroidered Dr. Hutchinson on his lab coat pocket, the monogrammed coat a gift from Starsky. At times like this, he wished they had exchanged rings at some point. He craved the comfort of that circlet of precious metal around his finger, a constant reminder that he wasn't alone. In a world as uncertain as theirs, the lab coat had sufficed, with its candy-apple red stitching in the monogram.
Starsk, you believe in me. I know you do. If you believe in me, I have no reason not to believe in myself. I can do this. I can keep this girl alive to reach the burn center. I can.
Confident, Hutch pushed through the swinging doors into the trauma room.
Starsky closed the booklet and put his pencil down. He sat back in the uncomfortably rigid chair and begged his brain to stop spinning. Clifton came over to the table and stood, arms folded over his chest, staring at him. "You done?"
"Yeah. For better or worse, I'm done. Take it away."
"All right." Clifton scooped up the exam booklet and pencils. "You have thirty minutes to hit the john, go by the café and get something to eat, whatever you need to do, but be back here by 1100 hours on the dot, so we can start the oral part of the exam."
Starsky let out a groan. "I'm gettin' the full assessment center treatment?"
"Close as I can approximate it. There'll be a few role-play scenarios, a series of questions, and then an interview, all of it taped. You might wanna watch your language. Not that the assessors who'll be listening didn't drop plenty of F-bombs in their day." With a smile, Clifton carried the exam materials over to the podium and clicked the record button. "Candidate completed written exam at 1028 hours."
"She's made it over an hour, Hutch," Caroline whispered at his side.
Hutch looked up from checking the chart. "Yeah, she's a fighter. She responded well to the morphine. Let's increase her D5W. I want a repeat ABG too."
"Time for the Betadine scrub?"
"No, we'll wait a little longer until we get word from the burn unit."
Caroline pointed at the wall clock beside the equipment cabinet. "Aren't you supposed to be heading out soon for the Academy lecture?"
Hutch closed the chart and handed it over to her. "I'm not leaving this hospital until Jo-Lynn is transferred safely to the burn unit. I told her I wouldn't leave her, and I won't, except to follow up on my other patients here in the ER. Any luck reaching her parents?"
"Not yet. We're calling every number Jo-Lynn's roommate gave us."
"Speaking of calling..." Hutch went over to the in-house wall phone and dialed the reception desk extension. "Maureen? Do me a favor and call the Academy. Get a message to Starsky that I might be a little late. Thanks."
Caroline grinned at him. "At least go ahead and change out of your scrubs. Things have calmed down. You won't need to take another trauma before you leave."
"Yeah, I might do that. Keep an eye on that subclavian IV."
"Roger Wilco. Any change in the Hartmann's infusion rate?"
"No. If the physician on the burn unit wants to adjust it, fine." Hutch had turned to the doors when the wall phone jangled. He backed up to grab the phone. "Hutchinson."
"I called the Academy," Maureen said, "but the dragon lady that answered told me Starsky's in a closed-door session and can't be reached. I tried to break her stonewalling and got nowhere."
"What? That makes no sense. He's co-teaching the class I'm visiting. Call back and tell whoever answers to let Jim Gibson know I'm with a trauma patient and I might be half an hour late."
"Sure thing, Hutch."
"Problems?" Caroline asked.
Hutch realized he still had the receiver in hand. He hung it up, trying to process Maureen's information. "I don't know. I'll be in the locker room. Any change in Jo-Lynn's condition, get me."
Starsky drummed his fingers on his desk, impatient for someone, anyone, to answer the phone. He had to piss so bad even the rhythmic noise of his finger tapping sounded too close to raindrops, making his bladder scream bloody murder. He stilled his hand. Three hours of sitting cramped in that chair, but he'd hit the hallway running for his office instead of the men's room, knowing he had a tiny window of opportunity to reach Hutch.
"County Memorial Medical Center."
"Maureen, it's Starsky. Any chance you can connect me to Hutch, or has he already left?"
"He's running late, Starsky. I tried to call you earlier but I got a smack-down from the sourpuss who answered. Had to call back and leave a message for that other instructor." Her voice changed in the way it did when she cupped a hand over her mouth and the receiver, and turned away from the desk to whisper. When she spoke again, he had to stretch his eardrums to hear her. "I think he's gonna be later than ever now. One of his patients just went majorly south."
Starsky's stomach went flop and then ka-thud, right into his straining bladder. "Damn. If you can grab him for a sec before he leaves, tell him I won't be in the class when he gives his talk, but it's okay, I'm fine, it's bureaucratic housecleaning with bad timing, and I know he'll do a bang-up job. Got that?"
"Sure, but Starsky? You need to be more careful with your instructions. You really want me to grab Hutch, even for a second?"
Starsky didn't risk laughter with his plumbing on red alert, but he managed a chuckle. "Lady, I got enough faith in your sense of self-preservation to know you won't take me literally on that."
"Possessive, much? All right, Starsky, I'll deliver your message. From a safe distance."
"Smart girl. Catcha later." Starsky slammed the phone down in his scramble out of the chair, and bolted for the door. He could make it to the john in a two-minute sprint if he didn't crash into anyone.
Hutch shut the washed, waxed Thunderbird's door with reverence. In the spotless driver's side window he could see his reflection with the clarity of a mirror. He shrugged his lab coat into a better fit over his blue dress shirt, ran a hand over his hair, making sure he had the "finer" spots covered, and looked down at his pants. He had to shake his left leg a little to get the cuff of his khaki slacks out of his business shoe.
Patting his lab coat pocket, he felt the ridge of index cards. Lecture notes. Check. He flashed a smile at the car window. No food in his teeth. Check. He cleared his throat. No nervous tightness. Check. The last task was the hardest: blanking his mind of a young woman fighting for her life on the burn unit. He and Mannigan had pulled her out of crisis just in time for the specialized unit to send down a nurse escort for the burn victim's transport upstairs, and he'd left word with the nurse to keep him informed on her progress. That was all he could do. Jo-Lynn's life was in someone else's hands now; Hutch had to turn his attention to broadening the minds of police cadets. Maureen's message from Starsky had calmed most of the butterflies in his stomach. He didn't buy "bureaucratic housecleaning," not for a second, but if Starsky could still think up bullshit like that, he likely had the situation, whatever it was, under control.
In the decade since he'd last given a speech to cadets, the Academy had undergone so many changes that Hutch felt he'd stepped onto foreign soil and might be asked to show his passport and return plane ticket. He tried not to imagine scenes from February's fire and the shooting on the commons. Fortunately, he knew of an entrance to the main building directly across from the visitor's parking lot. Hutch made a beeline for that door as if under the gun from a hailstorm.
His shoes sounded overly loud on the hard polished flooring and alerted the older lady at the front desk to his approach while he was still half a corridor away from her. She waited for him with a tight, sour smile on her wizened face. Oh, great. This was probably the dragon lady Maureen had mentioned.
He greeted her with a polite smile. "I'm Dr. Hutchinson. I was told to get a guest speaker badge."
She scowled at him over the glasses perched low on her nose. "Oh, it's you."
He stared. "Do I know you?"
"I know you," she snapped. "I would never forget a grown man who stuck his tongue out at me when he thought my back was turned."
He knew her then. Her austere bun had whitened some in seven years, and she stood gaunter than ever in the navy-and-white Academy uniform, but her scowl hadn't changed a whit. "You manned--" At her intensifying scowl, he gave her a little headshake. "Uh, you presided over the reports and permits desk at Metro back in '79. Well, actually, it was my partner who stuck his tongue out--"
"I have an excellent memory," she interrupted in an acidic tone. "Don't try to tell me who did and didn't stick his tongue out at me."
If Hutch had learned one thing in the seven years since he'd first encountered this crone, it was how to spot a hopeless battle before he entrenched himself. "Wouldn't dream of it. Now, if you don't mind, I'm already late for my guest lecture, and--"
"It's not my fault you're late. You should learn to manage your time better."
He sharpened his voice. "You can tell that to the trauma patients at Memorial. In the meantime, may I have my visitor badge? Please?"
She slapped the pin-on badge down on the counter. "It is to be worn at all times while you are on the Academy grounds. It is to be kept in plain sight. It is to be returned to this desk before you attempt to leave Academy grounds. Do you understand?"
"Implicitly." His control slipped; he gave her a nasty little smile.
She drew her thin shoulders up, her bun nearly quivering in her rage. "You are to proceed directly to your classroom. You are not allowed to wander in other areas of the buildings or on the grounds."
"Right. I'm looking for the Ferguson Auditorium."
Five minutes later, badge firmly pinned to his lapel, he found the right hallway. He had to give the old bat credit: she gave good directions. Ahead of him in front of wooden double doors a gray-haired man in a beige suit flagged him down.
"Hutch, glad you could make it. I'm Jim Gibson."
"Good to meet you." Hutch shook the instructor's hand. "I'm sorry I'm late."
"Don't worry. In a class like this, we can be flexible. I continued on with my part of the class, then sent the cadets off to lunch and afternoon PT, and now they're ready for you. How's your patient?"
Hutch smiled at the sincere concern he heard in the man's question. "Admitted to the unit of the hospital where she has the best chance for survival. Thanks for asking. Jim, before we go in there, can you give me the word on where Starsky is right now?"
Jim's pleasant face could harden quickly into a grimace, but Hutch could tell neither he nor Starsky was the object of the man's anger. "Commandant Richards has him sequestered with FTO Clifton all day taking the lieutenant's exam."
"Why in the hell--" A possibility occurred to him, taking his breath for a second. "Jim, let me ask you something. Do you have a college degree?"
"Yeah, a B.S. in CJ. Why?"
"Do you know if most of the instructors have either two-year or four-year degrees?"
"Um, not sure, but at a guess I'd say, yeah probably, these days." Jim was quick on the uptake himself. "Doesn't Starsky have a degree?"
"Starsky has a Ph.D. from the University of the Real World, but unfortunately that doesn't come with a transcript and diploma he can show to petty bureaucrats like Richards."
"I get what you mean. I haven't heard of any new policy requiring instructors to be lieutenant-equivalent certified if they don't have an accredited degree."
Hutch glared into space, wanting two minutes alone with Richards. "If the commandant is up to what I think, you wouldn't have heard about it. Can't do anything about it right now, so let me at those cadets."
Jim nodded and pushed open the doors. Hutch walked into the small auditorium with a rapidly developing case of stage fright. Standing beside Jim Gibson in front of row after row of smartly uniformed young men and women, he asked himself why in God's name he'd thought this was a good idea. What I tell these kids might save them or their partners. Right. That's why I'm here.
"Cadets, our guest speaker today is Dr. Ken Hutchinson. He's a resident physician in the ER at County Memorial, but he was also a police officer for nearly a decade before he went to medical school. We're fortunate to have him here with us today. Pay close attention. You might learn something that will keep you alive in a tight spot one day."
"Thanks, Instructor Gibson." Jim motioned for him to go up on the stage to the podium. Hutch swiveled to mount the steps. A little too quickly. He stumbled over the first step and had to grab the edge of the stage to avoid falling on his face. His face had enough to deal with as a wave of heat rushed over it. He heard snickers behind him. Kids! Some things never change.
He straightened, digging in his pocket for his lecture cards. Concentrating on getting to the podium without doing something else stupid, like tripping over some invisible spot on the floor, he heard Jim say, "Yes, Cadet Dunlap?"
"Isn't it true Dr. Hutchinson was Instructor Starsky's partner on the force?"
"That's right," Jim said. "For their entire plainclothes career."
Here we go, Hutch thought, prepared for some intensely personal question. He spread his cards out on the podium's lectern and looked up at the attentive faces.
"What was Instructor Starsky like as a cop, Dr. Hutchinson?"
I'll be damned. Starsky knows his students. Knew this was the kind of question I'd get.
"I've never seen him in the, uh, in the classroom." Hutch took a deep breath, swallowing hard. "But I'd bet what he's like as an instructor is similar to what he was like as a cop. Just imagine Instructor Starsky with a gun and badge and a flashy car -- well, he still has the flashy car-- a nose for trouble -- he still has that too-- and a sense of justice and honor you should all strive for. He's the best partner a guy could have."
"Yeah, he's real big on the whole partnership thing," said another cadet.
"With good reason. Partnership keeps you alive out there, better than a gun, a bulletproof vest, or a pair of swift feet. I could stand up here and talk about Starsky and partnership and the good old days for hours, but I have patients at Memorial who need me to keep this short and sweet. Let me get to the topics Instructor Gibson assigned me, and afterward, I'll answer any questions you have about my talk."
Jim gave him an encouraging smile from the front row. Hutch imagined Starsky sitting beside Jim in that front row, and he felt his rumbling stomach settle.
"This course is called Emergency Awareness, and that's...that's a great title, because one of the best ways to prevent an emergency is awareness."
Clifton pressed down on the recorder's stop button. "That's it. You're done."
Starsky slumped down in his chair and put his hands over his eyes. "About damned time. I'm all talked out. Christ, I'm tired."
"That's no surprise. Sarge, most guys do the written part of the exam and the oral sections on different days. You've had it all crammed into one."
"What I wanna know is why."
"I don't know. All I know is, I've been a witness to everything you've done here today. I'm no assessor, but I have decades of police work behind me, and I'll say this: you know your shit, Sarge. Know it cold. If Richards thinks he can use me in some scheme to put your back to the wall, he'll find himself staring down one very angry, very mean firearms instructor. Now, you think he's got the balls for that?"
Starsky let his hands slip from his eyes and smiled over at Clifton. "Nah, no way."
"And I'll tell you another thing. If Richards knows what's good for him, he'll lock himself in his office until midnight. By now your partner probably has a good idea what's going down, and hell, even I wouldn't wanna face Ken Hutchinson on the warpath over something done to you. Doctor or no doctor."
Warmed inside and out, Starsky managed a tired laugh. "No kidding." He sat up straight in his chair as he envisioned a potential confrontation between Hutch and Richards. "No kidding. Hey, Clifton, am I free to make tracks for the auditorium?"
"Why aren't you already gone, Sarge?"
Hutch stormed down the corridor, looking for any clue that he was going in the right direction. If the staff offices were where they used to be... This was ridiculous, and all his fault. Why had he pushed for caution beyond necessary, discretion to the point of farce? So determined to protect Starsky's career, and keep their personal lives separate from the Academy, he'd never even seen Starsky's office.
And yet, he'd never stopped Starsky from coming by Memorial.
Was I trying to avoid any reminder of police work?
"Can I help you?"
Hutch stopped cold at the disapproving voice behind him. He recognized it from TV interviews following the February disaster. Richards. Well, he'd wanted two minutes with the man. Better now than never. He turned. "I'm looking for Instructor Starsky's office."
Richards wore full dress uniform minus the commandant's cap. Maybe an inch shorter than Starsky, the older man had military bearing, a soldier's build, and the blank face of a Buckingham Palace guard on duty. "I'm sure it was explained to you when you received your visitor's badge that the pass doesn't give you free access to the rest of the Academy."
"Oh, come on. I'm not just any visitor. I was invited here. I'm a guest speaker."
"Dr. Hutchinson, I believe you were one of the physicians who saw the results of what happened here in February. I would think you of all people could understand why we take security seriously."
Hutch felt the low blow all the way below the belt, like a kick to the groin. For the briefest but bitterest moment he was thrown back in time to that day in the trauma room, the scent of Jeff Simmons's blood acrid in his nostrils. Anger saved him. Fury thawed the ice everywhere except the chill in his voice. "Come off it, Commandant Richards. You know who I am; you know damn well I'm no security threat. As you can see, I'm not armed. I don't even have my stethoscope with me."
"That's beside the point. If you've concluded your business here, you need to turn in your visitor badge and leave the grounds immediately."
"No, I haven't concluded my business here!" Hutch pointed at the ostentatious white-threaded cables draped from Richards's epaulet. "I know where you're coming from, Richards. You're drunk on your perception of your power, willing to stoop to any level in order to further your agenda. Starsky and I busted our fair share of men like you. Well, what you're up to now, it won't work."
Richards's mouth moved into a malicious smile. "If you're referring to the lieutenant's exam, Dr. Hutchinson, that agenda started in a higher office than mine."
"I don't give a damn where it started. If you think my partner will give up because you play a few head games on him, or throw unscheduled exams his way, then you're one lousy judge of character."
"Instructor Starsky stopped being your partner in any decent, acknowledgeable way in May, '79."
Seeing red, with a twitch in his jaw and a throbbing over his brow, Hutch lunged forward, ready to grab Richards by his perfectly pressed uniform jacket and shove him against the wall. His forward momentum checked against his will as he found himself caught fast by two pairs of arms. In his outrage, he hadn't even heard anyone come up behind him.
"Easy, Doc," said a strong bass voice near his ear. "You might wanna think twice."
"Clifton, Gibson, escort Dr. Hutchinson off the premises." Richards strode past them down the corridor, his dress shoe heels clicking.
"Damn him," Hutch muttered in a vicious tone. "Smug bastard."
"That's Richards, all right. He's a champion button-pusher, Doc." The bass voice belonged to a man Hutch recognized as a former SWAT officer he and Starsky had seen in action more than once. "But it won't do Sarge any good, you roughing up the commandant, even if the old pencil-dick asked for it."
Hutch shrugged against the hands gripping his biceps, and his two deterrents let go of his arms. He looked at Clifton. "Aren't you the guy who was proctoring Starsky's exam?"
"Yeah, and it's not duty I volunteered for."
"If you're here, where's Starsky?"
"Probably on the way to his office by now. He went straight to the auditorium from the exam. Jim thought you might do some reconnaissance, went looking for you, and bumped into me. I said we'd better find you before Richards did, or there might be friction."
"Friction?" Jim Gibson had a hoarse, unusual laugh. "I think Richards barely escaped having to pick his fancy dental bridgework up off the floor."
"Speaking of escape," Clifton said to Jim, "you take Hutch the back way to Starsky's office, and I'll catch up to Richards, keep him busy with questions about marksmanship grades, something."
Hutch tapped Clifton on the shoulder and held his hand out for a shake. "Thank you for stopping me before I did something careless."
Clifton's handshake could bend reinforced steel. "You're welcome, Doc, but if you weren't part of the do-no-harm brigade now, I doubt Gibson and me could've held you back." Hutch smiled, resisting the urge to shake circulation back into his hand. Clifton tapped his forehead with his index finger in a salute and headed off in the direction Richards had taken.
Jim Gibson cleared his throat. "This way, Hutch."
"I hope Richards doesn't hassle you for inviting me, now that I've officially worn out my welcome here."
Jim let out that throaty hoarse laugh. "I've got news for you. I knew my second week here that Richards and I would lock horns. He's the polar opposite of the commandant in Nevada where I used to work." He guided them around the corner and past a glass-fronted cabinet display of medals and several wall portraits of high-ranking police officials and former commandants.
Hutch's guide stopped in front of a solid door that had a gold nameplate.
David M. Starsky
Instructor, Senior Staff
"I'll let you do the honors," Jim said, nodding at the door.
Hutch rapped on the door above the nameplate.
"Come in," called a weary, scratchy voice.
Hutch turned to thank Jim, but the instructor was already walking away, a tense set to his shoulders. Grateful for privacy, Hutch opened the door. He ducked in, and hurriedly shut the door behind him because the man hunched over the desk looked up with naked emotion in his eyes.
"Starsk? I've only got a few minutes. I'm due at Memorial in twenty, and I'll be fighting traffic."
"Yeah. Maureen said you had a patient go south. Everything turn out okay?"
"Touch and go, but it's out of my hands now."
"I know that's rough on you, having to watch them head off to some other floor in the hospital. How'd your talk go? I wanted to be there, babe."
"Never mind my talk. I did okay. Nothing exciting one way or the other. Starsky, what's going on? Richards is talking about a higher office and some kind of agenda."
"Richards? When did you see Richards?"
"Just now, looking for this damn office. I screwed up, Starsky. I tried to control my temper, but if Clifton and Jim Gibson hadn't intervened, I would've rearranged the old bastard's sideburns."
"Hey, don't sweat it. You could rearrange his intestines for all I care right now."
"What's this all about? And don't give me that shit about bureaucratic housecleaning. I know you couldn't say anything specific to Maureen, but being forced to sit the lieutenant's exam without any warning or preparation goes beyond housecleaning."
"I don't know." Starsky propped his hips against the front of his desk and folded his arms over his chest. "When I first got hit with it this mornin', I thought it was Richards keeping me out of the classroom today 'cause you'd be here. Uh-uh. It's bigger'n that. Remember I told you I felt something was coming? I got a one-day assessment center today, Hutch, everything from the written part to supervisory role-play scenarios that Clifton taped."
"Why now? You think this is tied in to expelling that creep? Myers? We thought he had connections. Maybe those connections are throwing a few perks Richards's way to smooth Myers's path back in. Maybe Richards thinks he can bounce you out of here on some kind of trumped-up college degree equivalency policy if you failed that exam today, and get rid of Myers's main roadblock that way."
"Maybe, maybe." Starsky waved his hands. "Doesn't do any good speculating. It's over, it's done."
"It's just beginning," Hutch argued. "I think we need to talk to a lawyer."
"No!" Starsky gave him a crooked little grin. "Don't wanna waste your few minutes here shouting at you, but cool it on calling in a legal eagle. This might just be some elaborate game of chicken, and I got no intention of being the first to flinch."
"All right, we'll play it your way. For now. But don't expect me to sit by and watch that power-hungry bigot yank your career out from under you."
"Job," Starsky said, sounding weary again.
"It's my job," Starsky said louder. "Not a career."
"What the hell does that mean?"
Starsky stared at the file cabinet in the corner behind his desk. "You went from one career to another career. I went from a career to a...job. My career ended in '79. That's all."
Hutch threw his hands out to the side. "Oh, that's great. Just great. Now you're sounding like Richards. If he's got you thinking that way, he's already won!"
"What you want me to say?" Starsky yelled. He whipped around. "You wanna know the worst part of that examination bullshit today? Huh? For one day I got to pretend I still had a badge and was up for promotion. I got to think like a cop again. I had to keep reminding myself it's not real, and every time I did, I got sick to my stomach. Nothing Richards does can top that. He knew right where my jugular vein was, and he tapped it!"
"Starsky. Ah, man, Starsk, don't."
Hutch wanted two minutes with Richards again, no well-meaning meddlers around to stop him from giving the son-of-a-bitch a fingernail tracheotomy. He fought down thoughts unworthy of a healthcare professional and focused on giving comfort instead. Starsky let Hutch hold him, fitting his arms around Hutch's waist loosely, and accepted the light kiss on the small scabbed-over forehead gash under his hairline, but when Hutch tried to draw that kiss down his cheek, Starsky ducked away.
"Lock's broken on the door. Only locks that work are on my file cabinet and desk drawers."
Hutch had to turn away from the harsh realities for a minute. He'd never had a talent for keeping a "wounded" Starsky at a distance, an emotional or physical one. In recent years, hugs, shoulder squeezes, neck scratches, and tummy pats were never enough, the urge to more intimately touch and kiss away the darkness too strong to ignore.
For a distraction he looked around the office he'd never seen. Starsky had two obligatory wood-and-cloth cube chairs for cadet or fellow instructor conferences. In the opposite corner from the file cabinet stood his old hat rack from his last apartment, and here it served its intended purpose, holding Starsky's DOT-certified driving instructor helmet and a black firing range cap. Done with mentally cataloging the furniture, Hutch concentrated on the wall décor. He saw several framed pictures of the two of them from their days on the force. A corkboard held various schedules, memos, and several newspaper clippings chronicling Hutch's transformation from nationally recognizable police officer to apprentice physician. Beside the corkboard, Starsky had a framed, matted copy of Hutch's medical school graduation announcement. All easily explained as pride in a friend and "former" partner.
What Hutch didn't see disturbed him. He didn't see a copy of the Jane's Police Review article on Starsky's miraculous recovery and return to the law enforcement community as Academy instructor. He didn't see the Police Chief Magazine spread on Starsky's tactical safety course for undercover work. Hutch had laminated copies of both articles in his locker at Memorial. He didn't see Starsky's three Cadets' Choice instructor-of-the-year certificates.
God, Starsk, you've never...you've never invested in your work here. Have you?
Starsky misread his silence, or maybe the expression on his face. "I got a better picture of you locked away in my desk. Hey, don't flip out. You got clothes on. It's just a picture I took, and the way you look at me when I'm behind the camera--what? What's got you lookin' like that?"
"I knew it. I've known since December, but I've been--I've been trying not to see it."
"What're you talkin' about? December?"
"You were telling me what I needed to hear. It's another Starsky law, isn't it? Talk a little, reassure Hutch a lot. I'd watched Dobey nearly die twice, I'd just passed out in the middle of the ER from a damn sinus infection, and Bambi and Mannigan were in and out of that observation room. You said giving up police work was a slice of pie. I should've known you were telling me the only thing you could."
"I was telling you the truth, the way I felt at the time. Damn it, Hutch, I'm not walking around with some kinda crystal ball in my pocket. I can only tell you what I'm feeling when I'm feeling it. Can't predict how I'll feel about something months down the line!"
Hutch's heart skipped a beat, his clothes felt dryer-shrunk tight, and wooziness washed through him. He slipped out of his lab coat, tossing it over the back of the nearest cube chair, and undid the second and third buttons on his shirt, then wiped fingers across his forehead, smearing sweat. "Does that hold for everything?" he asked, amazed his voice held steady.
Starsky moved so quickly Hutch didn't register the change in position until two hands shot up into his hair and Starsky was kissing him hungrily, the broken door lock forgotten. Hutch ground his mouth against Starsky's with violent hunger of his own. Flushed, eyes bright and wild, Starsky backed up until he bumped into the chair where Hutch had draped his lab coat. Reaching behind him, Starsky snatched the garment and held it draped over one arm, stroking the white cloth.
Hutch thumbed his top lip, tingling from Starsky's kiss, and patted down his mussed hair, struggling to voice his deeper worry. "What you do here, all you've accomplished? It isn't enough?"
Starsky huffed and scratched at the hair curling over his right ear. "Hutch, we don't have to go into all this when you got to race back to Memorial. Traffic's gettin' worse out there by the minute."
"Right now I could give a damn less about the traffic, and Memorial will still be there when I get there. I had permission for this field trip. You're the most important person in the world to me. Mannigan has to take a number and wait in line. Do you...want to go back on the streets?" Hutch held his breath.
"You mean part of a zebra unit? No."
Hutch let out the breath. "That was a quick answer."
"'Cause it's the only answer I got. When I think of the shifts we used to pull, I feel like my head weighs a ton and it's gonna snap my neck in two and roll right off my shoulders and hit the floor. That tells me those days are over for me. I'm done with partnered police work. It wouldn't be fair to anybody they paired me with. Nobody could live up to you, and I won't put someone else, or me, through that."
"If you're done with partnered work, that lets out investigative homicide duty. So, what--"
"I don't know! I just wish--" Starsky shrugged.
"What? You wish what? Do you wish I'd stayed in police work and we'd found some way to work together off the streets?"
"The truth, Starsky!"
"Come on, you know the answer to that. Would I like more time with you? Hell yeah. But if we'd gone that route, there'd be some downsides. I doubt we'd be living together, one thing, and I wouldn't trade living under the same roof with you for the world. Most important, you're where you need to be." Starsky wagged the lab coat at him, then flicked it like a towel in a locker room fight. "I know it, you know it, and Mannigan knows it, but his killer left eyebrow would fall off if he ever admitted it out loud."
Hutch couldn't find a smile for the joke, much less a laugh. "But you're not where you need to be, is that what you're saying?"
"I don't know what I'm saying. Maybe it's my turn for a midlife crisis or something."
"I...damn. I can't fix this. I can't even tell you how to fix it. When you gripe about the midmorning blahs, I can nag you about junk food breakfasts. When you're having trouble with your heartburn, I can bawl you out for going to bed too soon after eating, or tell you to limit your caffeine and chocolate intake. With this, I can't...there's nothing I can do."
"Hutch. There's nothing to fix right now. I might be looking at the unemployment line in a week. Who knows? Nobody's lining up to hand me a badge and gun, and if someone did, I'd be damn sure to read all the fine print before I put my John Hancock on that dotted line. I remember that conversation we had in December, partner. One thing hasn't changed: I'm still not in the market for a chance to go back in the line of fire. Not without you, or with you neither. We're done with all that shit. Done. Hear me?"
"I hear you." Hutch held out his hand, flicking his fingers; Starsky tossed him the lab coat. "Walk me out to my car? If I go wandering again and run into Richards, I might leave him with a swollen jaw."
"Can't have that. My checking account wouldn't stand the strain of bailing you out."
"Very funny. We've got a big day coming up. You better leave enough in that account to spring for a good bottle of wine at least."
With an exaggerated frown, Starsky put a finger to his lips, shushing him. "What's the matter with you? Men aren't supposed to remember days like that. You want all our testosterone to evaporate?"
"Oh, for--come on, will you?"
"Okay, okay, keep your pants on. 'Til tonight, anyway."
Luck was with them, or Clifton had made good on his plan to keep Richards out of circulation. No Academy official accosted them on their way to the visitor's desk where the dragon lady looked ready to belch out a ball of flame. She glared at Hutch and didn't acknowledge Starsky. "Your visitor's pass expired twenty minutes ago. You're twenty minutes late returning it."
Hutch gave her his blankest face. "I wasn't aware the pass had a time limit."
"Session ended twenty-five minutes ago. You weren't authorized to do anything after session ended but return to this desk and hand in your badge."
"He was with me," Starsky said. "I authorized it."
"After session ends," she snapped, "you don't have the authority to extend his privileges."
"Okay, look." Hutch removed the badge from his coat lapel and plunked it down on the desk. "You want some unsolicited medical advice, lady? All this negativity you throw around? It's hell on your system. I suggest you go out and get yourself a plant, a dog or cat, hell, a goldfish even, because if you don't find something to smile about soon, when they do your autopsy, they'll find your vital organs pickled in lemon juice." She stared, open mouthed and blinking.
Starsky winked at her. "What he said."
Out in the parking lot, Hutch lingered over unlocking his car. "You heading home now?"
"Nah. I'll hang around here a little longer and maybe catch up on some paperwork so I won't have to bring anything home tonight. When do you think you'll get in?"
"If the gods are with me? Maybe twelve-thirty, one a.m. But I'm not on until tomorrow afternoon so I won't have to crash the second I get home. I'll need a little unwinding."
Starsky threw a quick look around the otherwise empty visitor's lot. "Monopoly or Chinese checkers?"
"Make it Chinese checkers, and it's a date."
Starsky's leer turned scorching. "Date? You'll ignore the phone unless your pager gets in on act?"
"Promise. It'll be our night."
"Man, oh, man. You know what talk like that'll get you."
Starsky's heated whisper hit Hutch's cheek like a kiss. "My mouth on your dick."
Hutch fumbled the car door open and did a twisting stumble-dance trying to get inside. He smiled up at his laughing Starsky. "I'll be home by midnight."
Starsky took careful, two-handed aim with the nine millimeter and emptied the clip, the report and discharge of gunfire more natural to him here on the outside firing line. No harm in honing his accuracy. Besides, he and Clifton had batted around the idea of co-instructing a refresher course for interested veteran police personnel. He would need a closer look at the target, but from where he stood he thought his shot distribution peppered the kill zones precisely: head, neck, chest, and abdomen.
"Off the line!" shouted a newcomer to the range.
Instinctively, Starsky lowered his empty weapon and took three full steps back from the firing line, holstering the automatic on his side with the belt clip. Whoever had the nerve to disturb his few minutes of stress release had better cite a damn good reason for it.
Jim Gibson strode toward him, looking quietly angry in a way Starsky had never seen with the former narcotics officer. Before Starsky had a chance to ask the other instructor what had happened to rile him, he felt the impact of Gibson's fist slam into his jaw, pain flaring sharp and white hot along his jaw line. He lost his footing on the range's short grass behind the line and went sprawling on his ass.
"That's for letting me walk away with the Clueless Dipshit Award, you son-of-a-bitch!"
Copper bitterness coated Starsky's tongue. He propped himself up on one elbow and patted at the corner of his mouth, smearing blood on the side of his hand. "What'n all hell's your problem!" He used his agility to do a crouch-spring to his feet.
"You and Hutch aren't living together to beef up your savings accounts and retirement portfolios! Did the two of you get a big laugh out of putting one over on me? Maybe it makes me a block-headed stereotype artist that I didn't put it together before now, but your reputation as ladies men stretched all the way to Vegas when I was in plainclothes. Compared to you two guys, the whole Rock Hudson thing doesn't surprise me at all. Um, I don't mean that I think you guys have--oh, shit." Gibson paled, losing all the fight in his posture, anger draining from his expression and leaving something stark in its place. "You're not sick, are you? You don't look sick. Are you gonna get sick?"
"What?" Starsky blared. Then he got the reference in Gibson's tirade and felt blood rush to his face, throbbing in greater intensity along his swollen cheek. "How is that any'a your business? I ever ask you about your sex life with your wife? Hell, no. I got no right to the same privacy?" Astonished, he realized the starkness on Gibson's face was honest concern. "No," Starsky said in a lower voice, rubbing his jaw. "Far as medical science can tell us, we won't get sick. Hutch and me, we both tested negative, we're monogamous, and we're careful, probably more than necessary, just to cover the bases."
"Thank God." Gibson let out a sigh that could only be relief. He gave Starsky a wobbly smile, clearly embarrassed. "I'd hate to think I decked a guy who has a terrible disease."
"Oh, yeah?" Starsky didn't pull any of the punch in his left hook, and Gibson doubled over backward, landing flat on his back. "Save your goddamn pity for someone who asks you for it." He saw that he'd split Gibson's lip. The man had to spit a mouthful of red-frothy saliva on the grass. Starsky was too angry to care. "Where do you get off? Hutch played it the way he did to protect me. Seven years this month we've been more faithful to each other than some guys are to their wives, and you think he got a kick outta making us out to be nothing but middle-aged bachelor roomies?"
Spitting again, Gibson staggered to his feet. "Starsky, I didn't mean--"
"What you got to be angry about, hm? That you're the last to know? Well, tough shit, Gibson, but that's your own fault. If you weren't allergic to the gossip in the staff lounge, you'da heard a few of the guys mouthing off about Hutch and me before now. They didn't hear it from me either. Difference is, a lot of them came up through the department with us, and they saw our Romeo act in living color. Only, it wasn't an act. When we weren't chasing felons, we chased skirts. Who knows when dickheads like Richards put two and two together? Maybe when I pulled my patched-up guts together and started teaching here, and Hutch didn't move out. Maybe when years went by and I never made a play for any female employees here at the Academy. I don't give a shit either way. I promised myself early on, I wouldn't lie. I knew I couldn't advertise, but I came in here naked, Gibson, no cover at all. Ready to face the consequences. And it's been a six-year-long trapeze act, but you're the injured party here? I don't fucking think so!"
Gibson put up his fists and then wagged his fingers at himself in a come-on motion. "You wanna lay me out again? Go ahead. Knock me back down on my ass. I asked for it."
"No thanks. We're even." Wincing at a stab of pain from his jaw, Starsky sighed. "Damn. You're what, fifty-three? I hope I got a knock-out punch like that left in my arsenal when I'm your age."
Licking his bloody lip, Gibson grimaced. "No worries on that score. It's been a long time since someone could lay me flat out on my butt, and I imagine twelve or thirteen years won't whittle down your strength. Jesus, Starsky, you have to think I'm the most insensitive clod on the planet. Maybe I am. I was mostly kicking myself for lighting the fuse on a powder keg by asking Hutch to come out here, but I just got a call from my old commandant at the academy in Nevada, wanting my opinion on Leitner and Kent."
Starsky matched his grimace. "And you thought I was leaving you out of that loop to get you back for not consulting me before you called Hutch and sprang the invite on him? If you think I'm good for passive-aggressive shit like that, I really am insulted."
"I couldn't think of any other reason."
"No? Try this one on for size. Yeah, I was keeping you out of the loop. For your own good! I didn't just call Nevada. I called a few contacts I have at academies in Oregon, Washington State, Arizona. Richards dropped the ax on Leitner and Kent to drive a nail in my coffin out here. Call it a power struggle, a dick-measuring contest, whatever you want, it's between Richards and me, and I didn't wanna drag anyone else into it. Certainly not a new instructor."
"You didn't think about that when you let me in for hell with Richards over today's lecture. Why didn't you save yourself some grief and ask Hutch not to give the talk? I could've found someone else." Gibson thumped himself on the temple. "I'm doing the insensitive clod thing again."
"Look, Richards wasn't born yesterday, but he gets off on the delusion he speaks for everybody out here when he trashes me. Fact that you invited Hutch was proof for Richards that you didn't know what Hutch and me have together. To his way of thinking, a guy like you, a decorated police veteran, married with kids, wouldn't want Hutch within twenty miles of the place if you knew. He won't blame you. He'll blame me for letting my lover set foot on Academy grounds."
Gibson had a sickened expression that usually signaled danger of puking. "My God. That's--"
"That's reality. You wanna know why I didn't give Hutch the maybe-it's-not-a-good-idea speech? It's 'cause I know a year ago he would've turned you down flat. Three months ago, same thing. It's something he needed, coming out here, giving that lecture, and it's a good sign he's making his peace with what happened here in February. More'n that, I knew he'd give one helluva talk to those cadets, and they deserve the chance to benefit from his hard-earned experience on both sides of the hospital bed."
Gibson smiled, immediately grabbed at his lip, and let out a curse. "Yeah," he chuckled. "Hutch did all right. Better than that. He even got them to laugh, which is more than I've managed yet."
"Wait." Starsky wasn't sure he liked the sound of that. "They laugh with him, or at him?"
"With him, what do you think? He told a few doctor jokes. They were a hit."
Starsky wanted to pummel Richards so far into the ground the guy would know how dirt tasted. "Hutch told jokes. To other people. My Hutch told jokes and got laughs, and I missed it? Richards better keep his ass outta my line of fire for the next week or I'll wrap those cables on his uniform jacket around his neck. I knew he was making me miss out on something special today, but man, Hutch telling jokes."
"Uh-huh. Your ball-and-chain did pretty good for himself as a guest speaker."
Starsky thought maybe those were the nicest three words he'd ever heard a straight guy use to describe what Hutch was to him. For that he risked the stinging pain of a grin. "Congratulations, Jim: that gets you a free pass out of insensitive clodsville."
Gibson returned the grin, fresh blood welling on his busted lip. "Now that I've climbed a few rungs on the evolutionary ladder, we need to talk about what we should do for Leitner and Kent, while I can still talk."
Starsky's grin faded. "Jim, right now, you're probably not on Richards's target sheet. If you throw in on my side with this Leitner and Kent thing, you'll land on that target sheet faster'n Cadet Robertson can run the quarter mile."
"It's not about sides, Starsky. It's about what's right, what's wrong, and what stinks."
"I'm with you on that."
"Thanks, Fred." Starsky shook the studio lot security guard's hand and watched him climb back into his specially marked golf cart. He knocked heavily on the metal office door.
"Just a minute!" yelled the producer himself, H.B. Brown, from inside. Grinning, losing the grin in a hurry when his jaw throbbed, Starsky knocked again, this time in a specific rhythm. "Oh, it's you. Come on in, brother, it's open."
Starsky twisted the knob and pushed open the door. Both stale and fresh cigarette smoke hit him in the face. He waved his hand back and forth in front of his nose and took refuge on the blue leather sofa catty-cornered opposite of the cluttered black lacquer desk.
"No, I couldn't get Andrew McCarthy! This is a blue jeans commercial, not some teenage angst feature film! Who you think I am? John Hughes? If you want your target audience seeing McCarthy in your cheap-ass blue jeans, you gonna have to rethink your budget on this whole caper, my friend. Call me when you come down off your imported angel dust high. You want a tip? Get you a new supplier, man; I think that last batch done short-circuited something in your cerebrum."
Stretched out on the sofa, Starsky was already comfortable, but he flinched at the slam of the phone in its base. "Troubles, Hug? I went by the Pits. Anita said you were here. Working late?"
Huggy leaned back in his executive's chair and put a hand over his eyes. "Sometimes I wonder why I ever thought this was such a hot idea."
"What happened to 'commercials today, documentaries tomorrow, feature films by 1990'? Don't tell me reality hit. Anyway, this whole gig fell into your lap."
"Not exactly, Curly."
"Whatcha mean? You won it 'cause some rich kook's dog liked some other guy better'n you, right? Or was that all bunk to give me and Hutch a lift?"
"Naw, it's true, but Rupert wasn't just a harmless cuckoo, he was also a good friend, Starsky. I kept a few secrets for him here and there, and he went to his grave a happy old man. Before he went, he had his other best friend and me over at his fancy pad. He wanted to leave one of us his dog and one of us this small production company. Rupert loved that dog. He stood us outside in the yard and let the dog loose to see who he'd come to. Reggie thought when the dog picked him, he'd won the company. Shee-it, no. He'd won Harvey the Norwegian elkhound."
Starsky laughed. "And you won this company, and renamed it Bear Claw Productions."
"Sure did, bro, sure did. Rupert saw to everything with his lawyers, sold me the whole kit and caboodle for one measly dollar bill. If he'd left it to me in his will, there would've been a shit-load of inheritance taxes and such. Rupert was too smart for that." Huggy sat back up straight and opened his eyes. "What brings you by--Starsky?" He squinted. "Don't tell me I'm seeing what I think I'm seeing."
"What?" Starsky touched his swollen jaw. "This? It's noth-- Ow!"
Huggy fished around in his desk drawer and tossed Starsky a bottle of Bayer. He leaned to the side and opened a mini-fridge. Thankfully, he knew better than to toss the soda can. Joining Starsky on the sofa, he pulled the tab and handed over the Coke. "Here, Starsky. Let's do some laypeople first aid, cuz if Doctor Blondie sees you like that, he'll be out for blood."
Starsky popped the aspirin, guzzled soda, then held the icy can to his jaw line. Ah, better.
"What's goin' down, brother?" Huggy curved his body into the corner of the sofa. "Hutch has his doctor pals in that human rights group he belongs to, but who you got? You can't sound-board off no Academy instructors, can ya? If you want to bend a friendly ear, I'm here, that's all I'm gonna say."
Starsky glared. "When I figure out what I'm supposed to bend your ear about, I'll let you know."
Huggy raised his hands in a be-cool gesture. "Hey, hey. I'm just concerned, that's all. How long we known each other? You, me, and Hutch, we've been tight since they invented flight."
"I know, Huggy. Didn't mean to bite your head off it's just...things are rough at the Academy." He gestured at his jaw currently icing under the soda can. "I got this from a fellow instructor, and he's one of my best friends on the staff out there."
"Heavy," Huggy sympathized. "So bend my ear ‘bout that."
"Maybe later." Starsky suddenly felt hot above the collar. "What's the word from your buddy Sakchai?"
"Starsky, m'man, Sakchai is a professional, an artiste, not just a jewelry artisan. Your special order will be ready for pick up on Wednesday, no need to fear."
"I just wanna make sure--"
"Starsky, the man travels to the jade auction every year in Rangoon--Yangon, damn it, if Sakchai heard me say Rangoon he'd conk me over the head with his heaviest piece of uncut jadeite-- and appraises the suppliers himself. You think a man like that's gonna drop the ball? Why you so nervous? Anyone'd think you was a college boy popping for a diamond solitaire."
Starsky stared him down, saying everything without words.
Huggy made an "oh" with his mouth and slapped Starsky's shoulder. "Con-grat-ulations! Why this year?"
"We've known each other seventeen years. Special day is the seventeenth. Seven years together all the way. I dunno. I'm not into numerology or anything, but there's gotta be something in all those sevens. Maybe it'll bring us luck."
Huggy laughed. "You're one superstitious dude, Starsky."
Hutch opened the door to the keyboard-drum-guitar trio from Walk of Life. Competing with the music, a signature Markham saloon brawl was getting into full table-crashing, mirror-shattering swing on the television screen, and Starsky had spread a picnic blanket on the living room floor, occupied only by the Chinese checkers board. The man himself showed up in the kitchen archway, dangling two bottles of beer by their necks and speeding Hutch's pulse from across the room in a pair of Hutch's boxers and nothing else. Hutch dropped his duffle and lab coat on the sofa.
Starsky beckoned with his free hand. Hutch started toward him. "Just strip down to your shorts. There's no dress code at Bistro Le Starsky."
"Oh, really? I should come here more often." Hutch took him at his word, shedding shoes and socks, khakis and blue Oxford. By then he'd gotten within kissing distance of his partner, but he spotted something besides stubble on Starsky's jaw. "What--?"
"It's nothing, Hutch, trust me."
Hutch wouldn't call a puffy jaw and nasty developing bruise nothing, but he didn't argue. "Did you ice it? And before you try to play it off as some weird accident, remember what I do for a living now, and how I've had to drill mechanisms of injury into my head. Tell me the other guy looks worse."
Starsky shot him a macho grin. "Yeah. At least you can still kiss me. The other guy's wife won't be kissing him for days."
"Now tell me whose ass I'll be kicking for even daring to lay a hand on my partner."
"No ass kicking necessary, partner. Jim and I worked it out."
"Jim? Jim Gibson? You got into a fight with Jim? Why?"
"It was a disagreement between our baser natures. He's in our corner. We cleared it up quick."
"Boys will be boys," Hutch agreed.
Starsky's chuckle caused him to cringe and lift one of the longnecks to his jaw. "Uh, in case you missed it, what I just said a few seconds ago about kissing was a hint for you to plant one on me."
Hutch slid his hands up Starsky's arms to squeeze his shoulders, and ducked his head to brush a soft kiss over the offended jaw, confident his lips could comfort better than a generic beer bottle. Starsky tilted his head, thumbing strands of hair behind Hutch's ear. Their lips met, and when their mouths opened to each other, Hutch felt himself getting the shakes, a thudding sensation in his lower gut contrasting with the space-cadet fuzziness taking over from his neck to his scalp. Starsky was one hell of a kisser on his worst days, but the kiss had nothing to do with the weird side effects.
Starsky noticed, too. He wrapped his arms around Hutch, beer bottles clinking. "Hey. You're trembling. You cold? Want your robe? I can turn down the A/C."
"I'm not cold. It was just one of those shifts, Starsk. Felt like I aged a year every hour."
"Let me take you to bed and tuck you in? You don't need checkers, you need sleep."
"No, I need you. I've had less than thirty solid minutes with you all damn day long."
Starsky lovingly clutched a handful of Hutch's ass...with his warm hand. "Park your tired self on that blanket. I'll be right back. Here, I'll leave you in charge of these babies." He handed over the bottles.
Hutch helped himself to a couple of couch pillows for back support and got comfortable on the blanket. Already swigging back welcome gulps of beer, he turned the checkerboard around so the triangle housing the green marbles faced him. Steve Hansen's distinctive voice caught his attention. He spared a glance at the TV. God, he was too damned tired to see straight when he had a hard time distinguishing between the tall, strapping cowboy hero and his trusty pinto.
"Here you go. Turkey with hummus on that pumpernickel you like, and carrots and red-pepper olive oil." Starsky came back holding the tray aloft by one hand in the style of ritzy waiters.
"Starsky, that's beautiful," Hutch said of the plate handed to him.
He watched just as avidly while Starsky deposited the empty tray on the coffee table and wriggled around on the blanket to find the perfect cross-legged position on the other side of the Chinese checkers board. With only boxers in the way, Hutch got a nice show of flexing leg muscles, rippling abs, and masculine chest that stirred him in a way feminine curves never had, even in the days when he'd wanted a steady diet of heterosexual sex. Starsky's muscled chest signified home and comfort to him. Starsky had held him, cradled him at times against that chest in the darkest hours of Hutch's life and during some of the sunniest. Hutch had a feeling tonight he would scoot down a little ways in bed beside Starsky so he could use that chest for a pillow. Anticipation of that special comfort increased his appetite for the sandwich and carrot sticks on his plate.
"Whatmph--" He hurriedly chewed the big mouthful of turkey and pumpernickel and washed it down with beer. "What did you and Jim Gibson find to disagree about?"
Starsky lowered his bottle. "Nuh-uh. I'll fill you in on it later. This is our time, remember? No Academy, no Memorial. I get first move?"
Mouth full again, Hutch nodded, and Starsky took one of his red marbles and hopped it over another on to the neutral part of the board. Hutch did the same with one of his green marbles. "Okay, well, Dr. Westley and I were talking in the lounge this evening--"
"Hutch. Dr. Westley? What's that but Memorial?"
Hutch wagged a carrot stick at him. "We talked at Memorial, yes, but the topic had nothing to do with work. I practically live at the damn place, Starsky. If I didn't count conversations that take place there, what the hell would I talk about?"
"Point taken. What'd you guys talk about?"
"He told me about a nice property up for sale in his neighborhood. You know he's a nut for surfing. He lives in that beautiful Eucalyptus Bay community close to the beach."
Starsky looked up from leapfrogging one of his marbles. "Why was he telling you? Did you tell him you were in the market for a new place?"
"I told him we were in the market for a new place." Hutch dropped his sandwich on the plate at Starsky's tightening-jaw frown. "What? Starsky, he knows we live together. The guy's a beach bum with a medical degree. If something doesn't deal with illness or a surfboard, he doesn't waste time worrying about it. The possibility that we share a bed in addition to a roof doesn't even rate, far as he's concerned."
"That's not it." Starsky pointed the bottle mouth at him. "I thought we had an agreement that now's not the right time to be talking big changes like a move. I mean, come on, Eucalyptus Bay? We'd have one helluva time swinging the mortgage on any'a those places on both our salaries."
"Maybe now, depending on what we got for this place, but when I make Attending--"
"Which won't be for another two years?"
"Maybe sooner if I get the trauma fellowship."
"Even so." Starsky shook his head again.
"Starsky, the property Westley's talking about isn't a beachfront mansion. It's a fixer-upper cottage with more yard than we have here. Westley doesn't live in the high-rent district of beach neighborhoods. He's no social climber with checking account pride. Eucalyptus Bay is more artistic than ostentatious."
"Hutch, you were at the Academy today, damn it! You saw what I'm up against. How many ways can I say it? My job security is nonexistent right now."
"If worse came to worst, we'd be fine for a while on my income."
"I won't be your kept man, Hutchinson!"
Hutch reared back, nearly dropping his beer in his lap. "You won't be my what? Starsky, does this have to do with that dumb joke I made about sugar daddies a while back?"
"'Course not! Gimme some credit. It's about things being equal. It's one thing you bring home more'n I do, and you'll bring in even more as an Attending. I can live with that. I doubt Richards's net income would equal an Attending's at Memorial. But--"
"But nothing! You're my lover, my partner. You helped put me through medical school. I sure as hell wasn't bringing home a paycheck back then. Yes, I had loans for school, but you carried the brunt of household and living expenses. What was I? Was I your kept man, your, your boy toy for four years?"
"Hutch, that was different. You weren't sitting around doing nothing, out of work and flat on your ass. You were in school full time." At the phone's jangling interruption, Hutch moved; Starsky grabbed his arm. "Don't. You promised me no calls until your pager went off. Finish your sandwich. You probably didn't take in half the calories you needed today."
The phone had stopped ringing, but when the answering machine didn't kick in Hutch knew his pager was in for a workout. Starsky had yet to let go of his arm when muffled meemps sounded from inside his duffle. The way Hutch felt right then, he doubted he could slap a band-aid on a paper cut, but he went rifling through his duffle for the pager anyway. One glimpse confirmed his fear: Memorial.
"I can't ignore it, Starsky."
"Sure you can. Or I can flush the pager down the toilet, and then you gotta ignore it."
"You want to feed my pager to the sewer gators, fine by me, but then you can kiss my job security bye-bye. Oates's wife could go into labor any day now; Hayden's out of town--"
"Go. Go on."
Hutch pulled himself to his feet and gathered up his duffle and lab coat for the trudge down the hall to the bedroom. He sat down on the edge of the bed on "his" side, and reached for the nightstand phone, knowing he wouldn't have the small comfort of a brassy Maureen apology. The new girl on second shift had the voice and personality of HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey.
"Dr. Hutchinson here," he said when she answered. "You paged me?"
"Yes, sir, at Dr. Mannigan's request. I'll transfer you."
Hutch hunched over, arms draped over his knees, cordless phone awkwardly sandwiched between his hiked-up shoulder and ear, and waited for the other shoe to drop.
"I just got a call from the burn unit. Actually, the call was for you, but I took the message. Jo-Lynn Winters died roughly twenty minutes ago."
"No." Hutch felt like someone had dropped a hundred-pound anvil on his back.
"We did all we could, Hutch. They did all they could for her upstairs. With the extent and placement of her burns--"
"I know," Hutch said woodenly. "I know. I just--"
"What I want to know is why you asked the nurse on the unit to keep you informed."
"What do you mean, why? Because I gave a damn what happened to her, that's why!"
"Hutch, I understand that as a police officer you might have had the opportunity to follow up with crime victims and keep tabs on their welfare, but you have to let that need for personal follow-up go, or you'll never make it as an emergency physician. We triage, we treat, we stabilize. When we send patients off to surgery, or the ICU, or a specialized unit like the one Ms. Winters went to, we have to detach ourselves from them in order to focus on the patients needing us in the ER. We're not family doctors. We're not meant to be. Do you understand?"
"You've made yourself crystal clear as always, Dr. Mannigan."
"Good. Get some rest. I'll see you tomorrow afternoon."
Hutch didn't bother asking when Mannigan intended to get rest. Apparently the man really could exist in a vacuum. Hutch punched the "off" button on the cordless handset.
Starsky stared out the kitchen window at their dark backyard. He couldn't believe what he'd said to Hutch. Kept man? He didn't know where that shit had come from. Why couldn't he let his lips do some flapping and tell Hutch a few other things? For starters, how he saw this house, this home they'd made, as proof of what they could still do together, something tangible, unchanging, and solid in his life that he could hold fast to in the middle of the whirlwind the rest of his life had become. Why was Hutch so damn hot to toss out the old and grab for the new with both hands? Was this hard-on for a new house just cover for something else, something bigger? Some of that good old Hutchinson subtlety at work?
Seven years is a long time for anything to last.
Starsky smacked the heel of his palm against the kitchen sink edge. He hated that he couldn't erase from memory the image of Hutch looking so uncertain after their kiss in his Academy office. He did no better when he tried to shake the feeling that the conversation they had in his office was the opening salvo in a war that might get ugly...and leave them on opposite sides of No Man's Land.
He and Hutch might have rough waters ahead, but he could step up and be a man now and repair a few of their crucial bridges. He picked up the plate of half-eaten sandwich and carrots and went to do a little angry-blond finessing in hopes his partner would put away the much-needed food.
On his way out of the living room he turned off the stereo and TV. No matter how successfully he patched the hole in their bridge, their chance for relaxing over checkers and moving on to more intimate games was shot. He found Hutch sitting on their bedside. Sitting wasn't the right word. Hutch had bowed over, head hanging, as if he lacked the strength to straighten up.
"Hutch?" Starsky said in his softest voice. "Please, for me, try to get down more'a this sandwich?" Hutch lifted his head and in the lighting from the nightstand's lamp, Starsky could see his dry-eyed, pale-faced agony. "Shit. Hutch, I didn't mean the dumb-ass thing I said out there; last thing I wanted--"
"It's not..." Hutch lifted his hand then just as quickly dropped it, a gesture of bitterness that threw Starsky back years to the final months of Hutchinson burn-out on the police force. "It's not that."
Starsky lingered in the doorway. "You have to go back in? No way. They can't expect it. You gave them better'n a double shift today as it is. You're just one person, f'crying out loud! Give me that phone and I'll tell Mannigan to go to hell myself."
"He wasn't calling me back in, Starsky. My patient...from earlier. The...the burn victim?" Hutch bowed his head again. "We did everything. Everything, and she still-- Jesus. So young. Not much older than Kiko and Molly, and dead because she was trying to give herself a perm at home and got careless with a kitchen fire. I shouldn't even be telling you this, I just--" Hutch began to shake.
Starsky slapped the plate down on top of the chest-of-drawers and hurried to the bed and pulled Hutch against him. Turning, Hutch clung to him, rubbing his face against Starsky's neck, and gasped and shook like a wet puppy. Starsky held him until he risked grafting Hutch's right arm to his side, then loosened the hold and briskly rubbed some warmth into that right arm. Petting through Hutch's hair, he turned his face to kiss Hutch's temple, his cheekbone, wherever he could reach.
"Easy, boy," he whispered. "I gotcha. Let it out, boy, come on, come on, let it out."
"I can't--I can't stand it when it's just like...when we were cops. You know what I'm talking about? We'd do everything right, follow protocol, spit-polish our reports and walk a chalk line in court, and still, damn it, still some creep with twenty previous arrests and no convictions hired himself a prostitute in a three-piece suit to find some technicality and get a mistrial declared."
"And Death? That black-robed sucker has the best mistrial lawyer on hire."
"I know. It's gotta be a kick in the teeth that you do your best and it's not always enough. I couldn't do it. Day in, day out. Don't know how you do it."
"Apparently I don't do it very well. Mannigan wasn't just calling to tell me they'd lost her. He quietly chewed me out for not having the right amount of detachment. For caring too much. Something. Implied that maybe I don't have what it takes to cut it in emergency medicine. How the hell does he do it? That's what I'd like to know. He's there round the clock like he's tethered to the place by invisible chains."
"Maybe that's the difference, Hutch, between you and him. You got a lot of caring in you, so much it comes out all over the place, and look what you got in life? Hm? You've got people who love you in return. You got me, doctor-pals like Sammie and Nate and Bethany, and co-workers who think the world'a you, and people who look up to you, like Rosie and Kiko, and Booker at the gym. Hey, Molly's been up in Monterey for going on nine years now and she still hero worships you. Yeah, Mannigan could probably run Memorial's ER single-handed, but what's his life like? My guess is, pretty damn pathetic and lonely. He doesn't make time for anything but being a doctor."
Hutch breathed a sigh of such deep weariness that Starsky felt it physically like a smack in the face. "Maybe Mannigan was more right than I gave him credit for in February, when he made noise about priorities and attachments. Maybe no one really can have it both ways, have it all."
Starsky wanted, needed, had to believe with every cell in his body that Hutch didn't mean what it sounded like. "Don't sell yourself short. Could be, this kinda thing takes time. You're still a rookie doctor. You're not fresh outta the Academy, but you haven't made detective yet. And, hey, don't try to be like Mannigan. Be the best doc Hutch has it in him to be, and maybe the rest will fall in place."
"I have to hope to God you're right, Starsk."
"'Course I am. We went through this back in March, remember, when you tried for a little while to be all-doctor-no-Hutch, and it drove you crazy and nearly turned my balls blue, and what did you figure out?"
"I couldn't hack it for shit," Hutch said in a strangled voice.
"Right. So what makes you think you could hack it any better now? 'Sides, I bet even Mannigan lets some patients get to him. He might not admit it, but I don't believe all the people who come through that ER are just a blur of faces to him."
"You're right. I know you're right. I just...holy hell, I'm tired." Hutch pulled away and rubbed his knees. "The sandwich was good, Starsk, and appreciated. I'm--I really think I'd toss it right back up again if I tried to choke down the rest of it now."
"It's okay. I'll sweet talk you into a big breakfast tomorrow."
"Starsky, about tonight--"
"Hutch, don't. We had words. Wasn't the first time, won't be the last. Let's call it a night?"
Hutch found a smile for him. "It's a night. I'll take that plate back to the kitchen."
"No, you won't. Me neither. Plate stays where it's at 'til mornin'."
"You're willing to leave a plate with food on it sitting on top of the highboy for a whole night?"
"Absolutely." Starsky winked at him. "Way I see it, if you can turn into Eddie Murphy in front of all those cadets and leave 'em in stitches, I can ignore a dirty plate."
"Where did you get that?"
"Gibson. I think you've got a fan in Jim."
Hutch snorted through a yawn. "I told a couple of jokes I picked up from Bambi, big deal. It wasn't exactly a stand-up comedy routine."
They separated only long enough to make solo trips to the john. Once in bed, lights out, they sought nearness, Hutch finding a comfortable spot on his left side, facing Starsky, letting Starsky's chest double as a pillow. Starsky approved. He liked nothing better before falling asleep than the feel of Hutch's cheek pressed to his chest, the ticklish fan of that longish blond hair over his skin.
Saturday, July 12th, 1986
Jim and Madeline Gibson owned a brown cedar-shingle bungalow with grey-stone columns and a spacious front porch. Tall palms framed the house and lined the curb. Hutch exited the Torino and reached behind him for the wine bottle gift bag. "I think this qualifies as a milestone, Starsky. We've been invited, as a couple, to dinner in suburbia."
"We live in suburbia as a couple, Hutch."
Not because Hutch wanted to. Live in suburbia, that was. Living together as a couple, hell yes. But moving somewhere more bohemian was a topic he hadn't broached since Starsky's volatile reaction on Wednesday night. He'd tried since then to put his wants and needs into coherent thoughts...and couldn't untwist his feelings out of knots.
They had simply outgrown their house. They had brought it to its fullest potential, and now was the time to move on to something new. He knew that thirst for newness had to do with wanting a connection to Starsky that could bind them in a shared future while Starsky went farther down who knew what career path, and he went farther down his own. They couldn't have a child; their schedules didn't allow for a pet, but they could take a cottage in need of TLC and turn it into a beachside haven that would shelter them from the world. Why couldn't he say that to his lover, his best friend?
One thing he could say.
Taking hold of Starsky's arm before he could lead the way across the road, Hutch discreetly stroked his shirt sleeve. A cross between suede and silk, the shirt molded to Starsky's toned arms. The gray slacks were fairly sedate for Starsky, but the black shirt with two bright yellow stripes down the front reminded Hutch of a new Monarch butterfly fresh out of the cocoon and ready for flight. Or maybe it was Starsky's thrumming energy, his health and vitality.
"Partner? I'm glad to be here with you tonight."
Starsky's loving grin and back-of-the-hand stroke down Hutch's cheek doubled as a kiss. "Means a lot, you comin' here tonight, 'specially having to go in to Memorial right after."
"I got a good stretch of sleep today. You must've been quiet as a mouse in felt slippers."
"I messed around with some photography stuff in the hobby room. Worked on the Torino out in the garage." His eyes flashed with mischief. "I thought about doing a two-hour set on the bongos but figured you'd have my ass for it."
"Yeah, and not in the way you and I both like." Hutch gave in to a grin himself. "Starsky, these people know. Right? I know Jim and Clifton do, but--"
"The wives? Yeah. Don't worry, Hutch. If we go in there and just be ourselves we won't get any static. Now, Leitner and Kent, we might wanna step softly around them. They're not staying for dinner. Just a quick conference with Clifton, Jim, and me. And you."
Hutch feigned a stern frown. "You just saved yourself another ass-chewing, because if you thought for a second you were gonna leave me to chit-chat with the ladies while you and the rest of the men went off for your little conference--"
"Nothing doing. You're not just my partner, you're also a former cop under those dinner party duds, so you got a lot to add to the discussion. Just so you know, if you did hang around and chat with the ladies, the topics of conversation might surprise you. Janice Clifton is deputy chief of security at Mandalay Heights Airfield, and Maddy Gibson is a hydrologist."
"Yeah. An expert on H-two-oh. Before she met Jim, she spent several years consulting on clean-water projects in developing countries. Now she does research closer to home."
"You don't say." Hutch smiled. "I'm liking this dinner party better and better."
"Yeah, imagine that, and in the 'Burbs, too." Another Starsky grin took the sting out of his words.
Hutch chuckled. "Okay, turkey, I asked for that. Come on."
"You mind, Jim?" Clifton asked, fishing a cigarette out of his pack.
Their host was at the wet bar mixing drinks for everyone but Hutch, who never allowed himself even the softest alcoholic beverage just hours before a shift, and Starsky, who was in the mood for a Sprite on ice. "No. Maddy doesn't care what I do in this room." Every few minutes, Jim would rub his still bruised lip and jaw and flash a joking glare at Starsky.
"Just ignore me, Doc," Clifton told Hutch, lighting up.
Hutch turned from ogling Gibson's collection of vintage guitars displayed on the far wall of the room. "I'll do my best not to see statistics written across your forehead, Clifton."
"Hey, Clifton, Hutch won't climb on too high a soapbox. He used to be a smoker himself. Long time ago."
Hutch rolled his eyes. "Thanks for sharing with the class, Starsky. I quit my first year out of uniform when I realized smoking didn't make time pass any faster during stakeouts."
Starsky smirked. "That's funny. I thought it was when that pretty Polynesian social worker from Honolulu told you she wouldn't date a guy who tasted like a fireplace grate."
"As I recall, Starsky, you were chasing her too, but she objected to your taco breath."
"Did she give in and date either one of you?" Gibson asked from the bar.
"Nope," Starsky said, accepting his Sprite on the rocks.
"You're joking. Both of you guys struck out?"
"Last we heard she's sharing digs with a ladies' softball coach. I think we were out of luck from the start."
With a sudden fit of coughing, Clifton nearly lost his cigarette from his mouth and looked like a fish trying to seal his lips around it. Gibson over-spritzed the scotch and soda he was fixing for Clifton. Leitner and Kent both laughed, melting the ice that had formed in the room thanks to a generation gap even more noticeable off the Academy grounds.
"You guys probably wanna know why we asked you here this evening." Starsky plopped down on one end of the overstuffed suede sectional, Hutch casually propping on the adjacent sofa arm. "Sorry for the cloak and dagger, but we couldn't have this discussion on Academy grounds. The commandant would drop kick all three of us across the PT field if they knew what we were up to."
"And then the good doctor here would have to patch together the bloody pieces," Clifton added, "which I'm sure he'd rather not have to do."
"I patch up enough bloody pieces at Memorial."
"So, why are we here, sir?" Leitner asked Starsky.
"You're here because neither'a you got a fair shake. It's political, and you don't need to know all the details, but the three of us and Hutch, we all think with some help and a little understanding you're both cop material, and you should have a shot at making it."
Leitner and Kent exchanged an uneasy look.
"What?" Gibson asked them, handing Clifton his drink.
"Did you guys go to a lot of trouble working something out for us?" Kent asked.
"Not much." After a sip of Sprite, Starsky propped his right ankle on his knee and flicked at a scuff on his leather slip-on. "You guys aren't obligated either way. I made a few calls, explained your situation to contacts of mine at academies in neighboring states. If you're interested, Gibson, Clifton, and I are willing to write letters of recommendation for the next session at whichever one you choose. Kent, you'd still have to get some help with your , um, blood thing."
"Yeah," said Kent. "God. That's one hell of an offer."
Starsky glanced up at Hutch and then at the two young men. In jeans and t-shirts, the cadets looked younger than they did in Academy uniform, but each had something new in expression that showed they had officially reached adulthood, and the arrival had nothing to do with chronological age.
"Why do I get the feeling we won't be writing letters?" Starsky asked them, smiling.
Leitner's expression saddened. "I, uh, well, Mom and I still haven't gotten word on Dad, but the officials, well, they're not exactly encouraging us to hold out hope."
"Damn, kiddo, I'm sorry." Starsky felt Hutch's hand squeeze his shoulder just as Kent gave Leitner a back pat. "Real sorry to hear that."
"You mind if I ask what they think might have happened, Keith?" Gibson brought over the shot of Jack that Leitner had requested. "Have they got anything to go on?"
"He was last seen in some out of the way village. His main contact thought his hot story might have had something do with state police squads blocking medical supplies and civilian support aid from getting to women and children during the cholera epidemic, but there's no real proof." Leitner downed the shot in one gulp and coughed. "My mom's gonna need me around. I'm going back to school to finish my degree in Criminal Justice, but I think I'll add some journalism courses too. See which one fits me better, maybe change my major. If, uh, if the offer's still good in a couple of years and I want to go the law enforcement route, I'd be real glad to have you write letters for me."
"Smart thinking, kid," Clifton said, patting him on the shoulder. "And there's not a damn thing wrong with holding out hope." Leitner nodded, offering a shaky smile.
"Leitner, I know there's nothing any of us can say to make this easier on you and your mom," Hutch said softly, resting his hand on Starsky's shoulder again, "but if you ever need someone to talk to, who can handle the stuff you don't want to vent around your mother, then Starsky and I are around."
Leitner's lips had a fine tremor and he blinked three times quickly, but he didn't show any sign of tears. "Thanks, Hutch. I'll uh, maybe take you guys up on that."
"How 'bout you, Kent?" Starsky asked. "Why the change in career plans?"
"My reason's not gonna sound that solid. You'll think I'm totally whipped. I've been dating this girl a year now, and when I told her I got tossed from the Academy, she, wow, man, she cried and cried. I thought at first she was, like, upset or disappointed in me but it turned out she was crying because she was happy. She'd never let on how scared she was of me being a cop, or else I just had my head too far up my ass or something to see it."
Hutch left his perch on the sofa arm and wandered back over to the guitar display on the wall. He stood still, gripping his waist on either side just above the beltline, but his shoulders had a perceptible twitch that made Starsky want a glimpse at his face.
"She would've stood behind me all the way I think," Kent continued, "and never said a thing. But...yeah. So, I got to thinking, which was more important, and--"
"And she won by a landslide," Clifton finished.
Kent flushed, nodding. "We're not, you know, rushing down the aisle. She's studying to be a pharmacist, and I'm not ready either, but I know she's the one. God, when it hits you, boom, watch out! It's, like, I looked at her and realized, man, I want to have kids with her one day."
Hutch was now palming the back of his head, digging his fingers into his scalp. Starsky wanted some Hollywood special effects whiz-kid to freeze everyone in the room but him and Hutch for long enough to find out what had his partner acting like this unofficial instructor-cadet conference had turned into a cover case gone sour. He realized everyone but Hutch was staring at him, obviously waiting for his opinion. Clifton and Jim had apparently already voiced theirs, and he'd missed it.
Starsky went with the first thing off the top of his head. "Kid, there's nothing whipped about knowing what's most important to you. That's something every man has to decide for himself."
Hutch turned then, and Starsky would have given a week's salary for one of the guitars to drop off the wall and distract everyone. The raw pain etched across Hutch's tight lips, in the lines over his brow, and glaring from his wide eyes clawed its way through Starsky's shirt and his skin all the way to his heart. Hutch's pride would rip him to shreds later if anyone else picked up on the static in the airwaves. Starsky tried to jumpstart the stalled conversation.
"Kent, if you're done with law enforcement, what's your plan? Where do you go from here?"
"My girlfriend's father is a psychologist. I talked to him a little about what happens, you know, when I'm around blood and all, and he recommended somebody he thinks can help me get past all that. I think maybe I might make it as a veterinarian if it works out. I'll at least apply to all the best vet schools and give it a shot if I get in."
Hutch gave him a polite half smile. "Well, from a practicing medical professional to an aspiring one, good luck with everything, and I hope it does work out. Mental blocks, phobias, I believe they can be overcome, and our four-legged friends need good doctors too."
Kent beamed. "Hey, thanks, Hutch. Coming from you that's, yeah, that's something."
After a few minutes of small talk and thank-you handshakes, the former cadets left to pursue their own Saturday night activities. Gibson whistled. "I can't believe I'm saying this, but maybe that bastard Richards did something good for once without even trying."
"Our four-legged friends need good doctors too?" Starsky teased Hutch, smiling.
Hutch didn't smile back. "What did you want me to say, Starsky? 'Hate to break it to you, Kent, but you'll probably freeze the first time you see Rover with a cut paw?' A good vet school is hard enough to get into without reminding the kid what an uphill climb he has ahead of him." He went over to the wet bar where Gibson was rinsing out Leitner's shot glass. "Jim? If you don't mind, coat the bottom of your mixing glass there with vodka, and toss in a few tablespoons of cream and give it to me on the rocks?"
"A White Russian real light on the vodka? Yeah, I can do that."
"Hutch?" Starsky was astonished his voice didn't come out as a squawk.
Hutch speared him with a back-off glare. "This is a fraction of one drink, Starsky, I'm not on until eleven, and I'll be getting plenty of food and water at dinner."
Clifton laughed around his cigarette. "I gotta say, I didn't really believe it, you and Sarge here knockin' boots as the kids say these days, but I believe it now, huh, Jim?"
"Take it from someone who's been married for twenty-four years." Jim vigorously shook the mixing glass. "They've even got the get-off-my-back bitching down pat."
Right then Starsky would have gladly signed over the Torino's title for a buck to anyone who could convince him that this was nothing more than get-off-my-back bitching.
Clifton sat down beside him, tapping the cigarette over a makeshift coaster ashtray. "Well, Sarge, what are the chances that Leitner's old man will ever see the good ole US of A again?"
Starsky was still watching Hutch at the bar. "Slim to none. Yeah, it's possible."
"Possible in the way it's possible that Elvis and Hoffa are together in disguise knocking back shots in some Beale Street bar," Hutch said, lifting his cocktail in a salute at Starsky.
Well, that sounded more like Hutch. Starsky lifted his own tumbler of Sprite in an imaginary clink of his glass against Hutch's. Starsky could never get him within five miles of a Miami Vice episode, but Hutch had one hell of an unintentional Sonny Crockett thing going on: linen slacks and soft white pullover, open neckline, golden skin. Man, Hutch. Tell me we'll have more times like this out with people who know we're together, who can see how lucky I am.
"Hey, Sarge." Clifton nudged him in the side. "All the cloak and dagger in the world probably won't keep Richards in the dark. Those phone calls you made on behalf of those kids, you might as well hang a flashing neon sign down your chest."
"I know. That's why I kept you and Jim away from that part of it. I think everybody in this room knows my--" Starsky swallowed hard. "My days out there are numbered." Hutch gave him a look that mixed commiseration and worry, and downed the rest of his drink in one hard gulp.
"You said the right thing to Leitner tonight," Starsky said.
Already in his lab coat over his dinner party duds, Hutch clutched his duffle tighter against his middle and stared out the passenger window at the flashing red-orange-yellow lights of an ambulance parked in the receiving bay. "That kid's not an idiot, Starsky. Right now he sounds like he's resigned and coping, but one day he'll want the truth."
Judging by the sounds, Starsky was finger-batting the keychain swinging from the ignition. "Sounds like his dad stirred up a hornet's nest somewhere that hornets are the size'a choppers."
Hutch flinched at the words and the rush of memories that came with them. The key-batting sounds died, and Starsky gripped his arm. "Hutch? F'God's sake, tell me what's goin' on? You were one big nervous twitch all through dinner."
"Don't be ridiculous!" Hutch couldn't seem to turn his eyes from the ambulance with its open rear doors. "I enjoyed dinner. Maddy and Janice are fun and interesting, and Jim and Clifton aren't too shabby either. They're good people. It's good to know them."
"And they all liked you, 'cause at your twitchiest you can charm the socks off anybody wearin' them, but I know you like nobody else knows you, and something's not--"
"Starsky, we agreed a long time ago: no serious discussions right before I go in for a shift. I'm stuck here all night and on-call tomorrow. I can't--I can't do this right now."
Starsky let go of his arm but only to brush his hand up into Hutch's hair before smoothing it down again. "I know, and I get that. But you and me, we gotta talk eventually, Hutch. I don't do so hot with this shoe-about-to-drop vibe we got going."
Hutch closed his eyes tight. "I know," he said quietly. "Not doing so hot with it myself. I'll--I'll call you when it looks like I have a prayer of getting out of this place."
He was halfway across the small parking lot when he realized he hadn't once looked directly at Starsky before he got out of the car. He swung around, suddenly desperate for even a glimpse of the Torino, and had to choke down a swallow when he saw that Starsky hadn't even cranked the engine. Duffle swinging, Hutch jogged back to the car, to the driver's side, and made a circular gesture with his fist for Starsky to roll down the window. He crouched down at the window so that he and Starsky were eye level, nose to nose. They couldn't risk a kiss, even in the darkness of the employee parking lot, but Hutch could look at the man who made his world spin right, and tell him a simple truth.
"I want nothing more than to go home right now and fall asleep with you. Remember that when you get home and get in our bed without me, Starsk."
"Ah, Hutch." Starsky drew his thumb across Hutch's top lip, stroking the sensitive skin where the mustache used to reside. "You got it. Hey, I'll probably be up during the night. I'll call you."
"You do that."
With a brush of his hand through Starsky's hair and a fleeting touch to that late-night bristly cheek, Hutch found the strength to turn away and cross the lot to the hospital.
Reluctant to face an empty house, Starsky opted to go on another Babcock hunt. His first stop, the couple's home, yielded no results and no sign of the snazzy Nissan. Starsky pulled into a convenience store on the outskirts of their neighborhood and did some strategizing, fueling his brainpower with peanut M&Ms. Tomorrow would mark the six-month anniversary of Simmons's death. Starsky's first instinct on pulling out of the store's parking lot almost turned him in the direction of Simmons's final resting place. Remembering Babcock's discomfort at the cold, impersonal cemetery during Jeff's funeral, Starsky changed his mind and spun the Torino around in a U-turn. His hunch hit pay dirt. Parking behind Babcock's Nissan sportster, Starsky shut off the engine and sat in a respectful moment of silence in view of Jeff's bungalow with its abandoned lawn and prominent For Sale sign.
Michael Babcock sat on the front porch. Sprawled, more like it, with his legs stretched down the steps. When Babcock reached for what looked like the next to last beer of a six-pack, Starsky exited the car. He reached the end of the front walk before Babcock glanced away from his beer can.
"Want one?" Babcock asked, drawing out the words, and nudged the remaining can forward. "I had a couple 'fore I picked up these, so I can afford to be gen'rous."
"More'n a couple, I'd guess, and probably something harder than beer." Starsky took the can and popped the top. "Just enough to kill dry mouth. I'm driving. And from the looks of it, I'll be driving both of us."
"Not necessary." Babcock brushed back his tousled black hair with the rim of his can and wagged his other arm at his car. "Got my wheels. New wheels. Nissan 300ZX. Oughta see her perform. Sally calls her my newborn 'cause I treat her like a baby. The car, not Sally. First I didn't want her. The car I mean. Didn't want an import. Guadalcanal was at my old man; no...the other way round. Yeah. He's prob'ly spinning in his grave. Buy American, my motto. But Sally talked me into it, and I'm glad."
"Yeah, she's a beauty, and she'll stay right where she is tonight, sport."
Babcock gave a wet, harsh laugh. "Sport. Long time, Starsky, since you called me that. 'Member, you and Hutch used to call me sport and Jeff champ. Drove us up the wall. Like we were snot-nosed kids, when we made detective around same time you guys did."
"I remember," Starsky said quietly and sat down beside the shorter man.
"Partners for a long time." Babcock stared at his can as if it were a reverse crystal ball. "I know you think I was avoiding you."
"Had shit to work through. On the books, I'm officially on extended leave of absh...absence." Babcock shook his can in a circle, swishing the beer inside. "Unofficially, it's been a lot of time on the police shrink's couch."
"What I figured."
"Sally's thinking about leaving the BCPD."
Starsky nearly dropped his beer can. He set it down beside him. "What? Why?"
"Tired of banging her head on the glass ceiling. Says she don't wanna make captain here, and doubt she ever would, or maybe in 2000." Babcock smirked at him. "Says she made lieutenant in Vice all the way from a starting point in Records, and came through the Starsky and Hutch School of Prove You Can Do It, Girlie, so what more's there to prove around here?"
"Nah. Sal's crazy ‘bout you'n Hutch." Babcock squinted at his beer can. "I'd be jealous but let's face it: Sal could kick my ass...and would if I pulled any chauvinist shit like that."
"No reason for jealousy anyway. Never was. Hell, back in '76 she threw us across the room when we hinted at showing her more'n a few self-defense moves, so yeah, I get you on the ass kicking."
"Summer of '80, she started going out with me. Blew my mind, Starsky. I'm no great looker. Jeff was always the one the ladies went for. I couldn't believe Sally wanted to be with me. She's so smart, tough, pretty."
"Yeah, you're a lucky man, Mike. What she's gonna do if she leaves the department?"
"That's... Last few months've been hell. Both of us trying to get some direction. Where she's going, what I'm gonna do, whole nine yards. Hell's bell choir, Starsky, we had some mofo fights, once she stopped walking on eggshells ‘round me ‘cause of Jeff. Couple times I thought...maybe I might lose her. Made it through. Ended up, she's gonna apply for the police chief position in Irvine, and me, I'm prepping for the lieutenant's exam in August, and she finally let me put a diamond on her finger."
Starsky coughed on a sucked-in breath, thwacking himself in the chest. God! So, it wasn't just him and Hutch. Other long-term couples, like Sal and Babcock, went through this career-life-relationship juggling act. He didn't know whether to be relieved or terrified. He swung between real deep happiness for his friend and wanting to put his fist through a wall somewhere to release his fury at the irony, the fucking irony, of Babcock laying the groundwork for a professional future with the same exam that might cost Starsky his. He thought about saying not to sweat the exam, it wasn't quite the killer people made it out to be, but that would lead to questions Starsky couldn't, didn't want to answer. Not when Babcock sat beside him more than halfway to drunk and sounding damned lost for a guy with so much direction. Besides, Starsky was 99% certain he'd failed the thing through the floor and wasn't in the best position to coach a future candidate for assessment.
He opened his mouth to congratulate him on the engagement, but the only word that budged from his tight throat was, "Irvine?"
"Chief there recently announced his intention to step down for medical reasons. She thinks they might consider a woman with her record for the job. Got ties there. She graduated from UC-Irvine. We've talked about getting a place in Anaheim, maybe, split the commute."
Starsky finally managed to say, "Well congrats, Mike. You guys set a date yet?"
Babcock turned a wobbly smile on him. "Next spring, depending on how things go in Irvine."
"So, uh, what has you out here this time'a night killing a six pack by yourself?"
"Six months tomorrow. Don't play dumb, Starsky. You knew. That's how you tracked me down here. Hurts, him being gone. Hurts like a sonuvabitch." Before Starsky could react, Babcock swiveled and pitched the beer can at the front door. The sick thud and beer splatter stain said more about his grief than words ever could. "Mornin' of the--" He shuddered, tremors beginning in his shoulders and traveling south. "On the way to talk at the Academy, I told Jeff I wanted to give up street work, wanted to really settle down with Sally."
"And Simmons?" Starsky asked gently, uncertain what to say and what to avoid.
"He was happy I had big plans for the future."
"Babcock--Mike." Starsky closed his eyes, rubbed them with his left index and thumb. "What are you trying to tell yourself?"
"He took those bullets for me!" Babcock's shout could have reached the next block.
Starsky stared at the agitated man, trying to sift through images of the day on the Academy common. He'd heard the shots and felt the stinging pain in his arm, but his first realization had been the danger to the cadets around him. Only after he'd subdued the shooter had he turned and spotted the ashen-faced Babcock kneeling on the ground beside his fallen partner.
"Those bullets had my name on 'em," Babcock said, voice suddenly chilled. "None of us had warning enough to do a damned thing about it beforehand. But Jeff had long enough to put himself in front of me."
"Ease off yourself." Starsky reached out and squeezed Babcock's shoulder. "You think Simmons would want you to spend all this time feeling guilty? Hell, no. I remember him always grinning biggest when you were laughing up a storm. Meant he was happy when you were happy. Person like that wouldn't want you to eat your heart out like this."
"Stupid asshole!" Babcock's returning shudders told Starsky the epithet was directed at Simmons. "If he'd just stayed put. The bullet trajectory...I would've come out of it with a shoulder wound, clean, maybe something a little dicey on the left side...but I'd probably still be here, and he would too!"
"Lookit, he was your partner and best friend. He cared about you. He must've had only a split-second to react, Mike. It was his choice to shield you. And don't think what you told him that morning made his choice for him. If that day hadn't happened and you'd stayed on the streets with him, you think he wouldn't have made the same decision if you had a gun aimed at you in an alley?"
"Yeah, that's what the police shrink's been telling me." Babcock's lips were gray. "Now all I can do is honor that choice. Jeff would want me to do something big. Really get somewhere. He was always pushin' me like some kinda coach. That's one reason I'm taking the lieu's exam."
"Great. Then use all you learned from your partnership to get to the top of the pack."
Babcock slung an arm around Starsky's shoulders and leaned in. "Got a plan here, don'tcha?"
"Captain Phillips is on his way into the sunset of retirement, Babcock. You get in there, show what you're made of, play your cards right, and you could be the next man sitting in what used to be Dobey's chair. You have sixteen years on the force, fourteen of them experience in Homicide and street work. That's what the brass are looking for."
Babcock seemed to be considering the words, but his face remained blank. When he finally spoke, his slurred words took Starsky by surprise. "You catch the news Thursday night? The BCPD superory -- supervisory board's ruling on gays and lesbians on the force? Sal and me saw it. She danced around the living room like a wild thing. I thought about calling you, but I knew once I had you on the phone I'd need to say...well...some shit I needed to say, been meanin' to tell you...about what I said to you and Hutch that day at the hospital...when Jeff...yeah. Wasn't ready."
"You got nothing that needs to be said about that day. Just don't forget I'm here for you. So's Hutch."
"You'n Hutch are the besht...best...men I ever known 'sides Jeff."
"Thanks, sport. You're not half bad yourself. Ready for the Starsky Limo Service to take you home?"
"Yeah. Feel like I'm goin' home for the first time in a long time."
Monday, July 14th, 1986
Starsky regretted skipping breakfast. With the cadets at tactical firearms training, he'd been on his way to lunch in the café when the call reached his office summoning him to the commandant. Yet again he had to close his eyes when he walked past windows affording a view of the common where Jeff Simmons had been fatally shot, where he himself had unleashed buried remnants of Vietnam's cruelty on a fellow veteran to spare the lives of young cadets. Where he'd become a "hero" with no desire for the praise and publicity. All Starsky felt when he walked past was mixed emotion: gratitude that no cadet fell from gunfire that day, misery that he'd been unable to save a friend.
At her desk in the anteroom, Patsy had a concerned smile for him that raised goosebumps on Starsky's arms in spite of his suede sports coat and the small room's stuffiness. He stopped outside Commandant Richards's office and knocked sharply. At the barked permission to enter, Starsky assumed his business-like smile and opened the door. Formal as always in full dress uniform, Richards sat behind his massive desk, presiding over a hill of paperwork. He pushed back in the swivel chair and gestured for Starsky to have a seat. Starsky reflected for the hundredth time that his boss had missed his calling. From polished shoes to his military haircut and barking voice, the man had a drill sergeant's rigidity and abrasion. Starsky wasn't intimidated. He'd faced more powerful men than Richards. With Hutch at his side, he'd busted men more powerful than Richards.
Richards wasted no time on greetings and small talk. "About the upcoming session. Bryce will be taking over the bulk of your training load. What's left will go to Gibson."
"What?" Starsky frowned. He didn't want to show negative emotion around Richards; that, he knew, was a loss of advantage, but the announcement grabbed him right around the throat. He'd told himself to expect it. For days, he'd told the man facing him in the mirror that this was coming. He still wasn't ready. "Are you firing me?"
"The commissioner and I agree that you're better suited for a career outside of the academy."
"I wasn't aware the commissioner had any say-so. The BCPD doesn't write my paycheck. Is it because he's on the Academy Board of Supervisors?"
"He is, yes, but he's also a man I listen to, because he's the voice of authority for one of our foremost employers. The LA County Sheriff's chief of Leadership and Training is even less thrilled with you. He insists that new employees who graduate from this academy have in recent years been maverick risk-takers he'd rather not have on his watch. I think we both know who is responsible for that."
Starsky forced his face into an iron mask. He'd learned that fiery anger didn't work with the New Bureaucracy in law enforcement. In the past he could rail and fume and influence men like Ryan and Reasoner. No more. "I don't train my cadets to be risk-takers. I train them to think for themselves and to know when blind loyalty to some rule or regulation might get them or their partner, or some innocent civilian, killed. So, that's it? I'm out 'cause I don't help you turn out blue-uniformed robots?"
"Your style and method of instruction are only part of the picture. I would also say that your personal life hardly meets the criteria of living above reproach that we expect of our cadets and future police officers."
"That's funny. Did you miss the eleven o'clock news Thursday night? The BCPD's supervisory board voted 8-4 to pass a ruling that no officer can be dismissed from the police department or discriminated against because of perceived or proven sexual orientation. Unless a cop's up to something illegal, his bedroom activities are no longer IA's business, sir."
"As you said yourself," Richards said coldly, "the BCPD doesn't govern my policies."
Sitting with his own ex-military bearing, a last resort he rarely used, Starsky let his voice go deep and icy. He knew people who remembered his occasionally loud temper feared this colder, quieter version. "I've kept my personal life separate from work. It's never discussed with any cadet, and the only time I ever discussed it openly with a fellow instructor, he started the conversation, not me. The one time Hutch was here on Academy grounds, you saw to it I couldn't even be in the same classroom with him!"
The discomfort showed on Richards's face, his lips twisting in distaste he didn't bother to conceal. "You have a meeting with Commissioner Levinthal downtown at four p.m."
"Why does he need to meet with me? You've already done his dirty work." Starsky rose without waiting for dismissal. "I will fight this," he said clearly, enunciating every word with sharp precision. "Did I fail the lieutenant's exam? Is that it? That exam was trumped up bullshit, and if you think you're gonna use that to justify my dismissal on paper, I'll make sure the press hear about it. I have a work record I'll hold up against anyone else's, and if it comes down to hardball, I will take this to court."
"Take that attitude into Commissioner Levinthal's office, and you just might have to," Richards snapped back, face flushing.
"Then we know where we stand," Starsky said. "Should I clear out my office?"
"In your own time," Richards's voice calmed. "Take the rest of the day as personal leave."
Starsky's head didn't lower an inch, his shoulders firm and squared, until the office door closed behind him. For a minute he rested against the door and allowed himself to slump in reaction.
"Starsky?" Patsy sounded worried. "Are you all right?"
"Fine. I'm fine, Patsy."
Starsky sat at his small, cluttered desk and held a framed photo of a breathtaking man. As he'd told Hutch, discretion forced him to keep the photo in his desk drawer, but the picture could have been published in any family-oriented magazine without censure.
In white slacks and white short-sleeved shirt trimmed in red, Hutch sat casually with his tanned arms crossed over his raised knee, longish hair carefully combed, cheeks rosy, blue eyes glittering, and the softest, sweetest smile promised kissable lips. The smile made the picture a private treasure that couldn't be displayed. It was a smile reserved for a cherished lover, and anyone who saw the picture on Starsky's desk would assume the truth: that Hutch had been looking at Starsky behind the camera. Starsky brought the five-by-seven to his lips and kissed Hutch's smiling face.
The office door opened and Daniel Bryce swept in, consulting a sheaf of papers. He looked up before Starsky could lower the photo, and stared. "Starsky?"
Starsky steeled his face. He could slip the picture in his drawer and close it away unseen, but the meeting with Richards still grated. Smiling, no hint of uncertainty he often felt when facing a negative outside world, Starsky turned the photo around and stood it up beside his telephone. Bryce couldn't possibly ignore the five-by-seven with its lip smear on the glass over Ken Hutchinson's face.
The older instructor turned a faint pink and stammered, "I, uh, caught you at a bad time, didn't I? Just wanted to get your impressions on the incoming recruits. Maybe tomorrow? I'm snowed under the rest of the day, but, uh." He backed up toward the door. "Or, uh, maybe I'll just talk to Gibson."
"We have a great class coming in next session. You'll have a blast working with them."
Bryce scratched at his brow and offered a hesitant smile on his way out of the office. Starsky sat back and clucked his tongue. He couldn't work up a single care about any future staff lounge gossip. What did anything so trivial matter with his professional world about to fall apart? When the phone rang, he almost opted to yank the cord out of the wall jack. Warmth that suddenly suffused him changed his mind.
He grabbed the receiver. "Starsky."
"I thought I'd be leaving a message. Don't you have an instructors' meeting?"
Comforted by his favorite voice, Starsky tried to sound lackadaisical if not cheerful. "Nope. I'm hanging out in my office. What's up?"
"Nothing, just had you on my mind. Starsk, what's wrong? Did something happen?"
"Starsky, if you say bureaucratic housecleaning, you'll be in big-time trouble with me. I can tell by your voice it's more than that."
"Not something I wanna get into over the phone, but I'll tell you this much: the shoe dropped, and it's a size sixteen to match Richards's damn ego. But I'm fine. Even better now I'm talking to you."
Hutch's voice softened, "I love you, buddy."
Simple words, said often, but the special tone and Hutch's willingness to say them where he might be overheard calmed Starsky's unsettled mood. "Love you, too."
"So, if there's no instructor's meeting, you're--"
"Taking the day off," Starsky said. "I got a meeting with Levinthal at four."
"The commissioner! Listen, we had a morning rush, but the afternoon is calming down. I could see about signing out for a couple hours. Meet you at your appointment; spend some time with you afterward?"
"The offer makes me wanna kiss you 'til you can't stand up, but don't use one of your ‘get out of jail free' passes for this. I don't want Mannigan climbing your ass 'cause of me."
"Oates signed out yesterday to be at his wife's OB appointment, and Mannigan didn't spontaneously combust."
"Is Oates trying for the trauma fellowship?"
"Maybe that's why Mannigan didn't combust, ever think of that?"
"Damn. Yeah, I'd thought of it, but I hoped you hadn't. Starsky, I have a feeling what you're up against right now is bigger than this fellowship."
"It's not small, I'll give you that, but it's not worth throwing you off your stride at Memorial."
"Fine, you win. Whatever it is, I know you can handle it, and I won't smother you. Tell me all about it later?"
"Absolutely, and you're not smothering me. I just wanna make sure you keep getting to do what you do over there, because I--" Because I don't want you facing what I'm facing right now. Starsky fought his need to reach out for the grounding and comfort only Hutch could give him. Now was not the time to whine about a problem Hutch could do little to solve. "I believe in what you do, Hutch."
Hutch made a soft sound like he'd been handed two-dozen new leafy-green plants and a bottle of French champagne. "Starsk. I believe in you. Remember that at Levinthal's office. Look, Mannigan's flagging me down, so I have to run."
"See ya." Starsky re-cradled the receiver and looked around the office. Memories rushed him, cadet faces, cadet voices swirling around him until the room spun like a merry-go-round. He heard himself telling Hutch his work at the Academy was a job, not a career. You don't know what you got ‘til it's gone....
Starsky knew little about Commissioner Levinthal. At present Levinthal had filled the commissioner's seat for only four months--sufficient time to settle in and start demanding change in the department. Change that possibly included sweeping out all "subversive" elements, down to "undesirable" Academy faculty. That didn't jibe with the enthusiasm in Edith's voice when she'd answered Starsky's questions about him, but it wouldn't be the first time good people got fooled. Hedging his bets, Starsky didn't bother pasting on a smile while the assistant knocked on the commissioner's door. He wore his no-nonsense, nail-eating expression into the inner sanctum.
Levinthal was indeed the slender man of medium height, graying dark hair, and smart suits Starsky remembered from recent sightings at the Academy. He didn't lord it over his desk after Starsky entered. He left his seat and met Starsky halfway, holding out his hand. Starsky shook the offered hand, too shocked to change his expression. Levinthal waved the assistant away with a smile and gestured for Starsky to join him at the desk.
"I have the impression Richards gave you the wrong idea about this meeting," Levinthal said after both were seated. At Starsky's parted lip stare, Levinthal nodded. "I can tell by your expression. He led you to believe you were coming here for a high-level axe job?"
Starsky finally allowed a smile to lighten his face. "You could say that."
"I apologize for that, because it's partly my fault."
"I don't follow."
"You recently underwent a full assessment center at the Academy, Starsky. I initiated that assessment center. Unfortunately, in order to make it valid, I required the signature of your immediate acting superior, Commandant Richards. I know the man, and I know what he's capable of. The only way to insure he wouldn't sabotage your effort was to let him believe I intended to use the lieutenant's exam to your disadvantage. I hope you'll forgive the subterfuge, because that's the farthest thing from my real intention. I asked you here to persuade you to re-join the police force."
Starsky had to straighten rigidly in his seat to avoid falling out of it. "Say again?"
"If you pass a basic administrative physical, I'd be honored to hand back your badge and the full authority vested in your rank and title, plus one grade, Detective Lieutenant."
"De--De--Lieu--" Starsky clamped his mouth shut. God, he was stuttering, for crying out loud. Hutch would flip if he only knew! "Lieutenant, sir?"
"You passed the written exam, Starsky. In addition, the cassettes of your participation in the oral portion of the exam received positive reviews from independent assessors in other police departments in New York, Las Vegas, and Miami."
"But I don't have any college, sir. I thought--"
"You have a decade of active-duty work and six years as an Academy instructor to your credit, roughly sixteen years of experience in law enforcement, Starsky. It's long been a tradition in the BCPD to award a chosen few decorated officers with fifteen or more years of experience the chance to participate in an assessment center regardless of educational background. Your promotion isn't without precedent, Starsky. What's without precedent is the unorthodox way you had to sit the exam with no advance preparation. I'll come back to that later. Are you interested in coming back to us?"
"You're not talking about joining a zebra-unit, sir? I said goodbye to the frontlines in '79, and that's not a decision I'm looking to change."
"No. Your wisdom in knowing when to make that kind of decision is one of the reasons I want you back. I'm speaking of a more administrative position. I'm creating a new unit, Starsky. That's one of the reasons your promotion was critical. In each precinct in this department, I'm assigning one lieutenant to a unit called Precinct Specific Operations. Each of our precincts has its weak spots that need troubleshooting. The PSO lieutenant in each precinct will work on those weak spots and report directly to me. I'll meet with each of you once a month for progress reports. You won't be a zebra, Starsky. Your call sign will be KH9: King-Henry-Nine. Detective attached to Administrative Services, ninth precinct."
"Not bad. Shame I'm not in the eighth precinct."
Levinthal smiled. "Does that joke mean you're leaning toward accepting what I'm offering you?"
"Could I have some specifics, sir? What are the weak spots in the ninth precinct?"
"First of all, I'd like you to sit on our review board. Disciplinary, reinstatement, and in-house reviews. Internal Affairs is supposed to be our watch-dog unit, but I'm hoping our review board will do a better job of making sure the IA boys don't make mistakes. In the ninth precinct that's been a particular problem, as you well know."
"I want nothing to do with Internal Affairs, and they want nothing to do with me."
The answer drew a hearty laugh from Levinthal. "That's my point. I want someone on the review board--an entirely separate entity from Internal Affairs, by the way--who isn't intimidated by IA."
"You said first of all? There's more?"
"Yes." Levinthal's expression turned serious again. "I'd like you to adapt a couple of your self-designed Academy courses into seminars for rookie field detectives. With Harold Dobey in retirement, Captain Phillips is doing his best, but he's not equipped to mentor plainclothes rookies. You are. I also want you to help some of our veteran officers."
"In what way, sir?"
"I've been studying BCPD officer vehicle accident reports. During your tenure at the Academy as a driving instructor, our rookie officers have had a commendable safety rating. Our older officers are responsible for the majority of on-duty accidents. Certainly, some of that is due to loss of driver acuity with age, but I think it's also a testament to your efficacy as a driving instructor."
"Well, sir, once upon a time I landed my partner in Memorial with a concussion and strained neck ‘cause I got a little enthusiastic in pursuit of a felon. I knew when I got the DI courses at the Academy, I wanted to teach the cadets how to outsmart getaways, not just outdrive them."
"The city has recently purchased a closed circuit road property that was used by the film industry. I want you to examine the BCPD accident reports and design and teach an advanced course tailored to older officers who've been involved in an accident, and anyone who voluntarily signs up."
"I'd be glad to, sir."
"I also believe we can use you in hostage negotiation, if you undergo special training."
"Hostage negotiation, sir, I--"
Levinthal raised a hand. "You've paid your dues. You have every right to want safety from here on out. The Hostage Crisis Team is changing to offer more opportunities than what you were familiar with during your years on the force. I'm not asking you to serve as a possible hostage-exchange or SWAT personnel. I want you behind the scenes. Your street cop expertise could be crucial in helping the lead negotiator make split-second decisions that save lives. It's a form of fieldwork, but it's not the frontlines, Starsky, and Lieutenant Cato's intelligent, accessible, and liberal-minded, a real team player with a lot of heart. He would welcome your input and involve you in the process."
Out in the field again. In the field again, but without Hutch. Starsky put aside the thought in order to ask the necessary questions with a clear mind. "I have to ask, why me?"
Levinthal studied him for a lengthy moment. "Let me be perfectly honest with you, Starsky. I was working my way up through the leadership ranks while you were on the force, and I saw things. Ryan disliked you; Reasoner had little patience with you; IA's members, by and large, couldn't stand you; and Harold Dobey trusted you. That record, along with your impressive career jacket, inspires me to trust you. I made my final decision after sitting in on your ethics lecture recently at the Academy. What I witnessed on the driving course when you made the executive decision to expel that cadet for a gross lack of humanity, well, that just confirmed the wisdom in my choice. This is a pivotal time for the BCPD. Times are changing out there, and the old method of running a police force won't cut it. I need cops with a real grasp of cutting edge law enforcement and integrity to fill leadership positions. I couldn't get my predecessor to agree with my vision, but I have the steering wheel now, and I intend to see that this department is prepared to handle the new demands society makes on it."
Starsky took a deep breath. He could shake Levinthal's hand one more time and walk out of the office with a brand-new career. But he couldn't, yet. Not without testing the reality of this vote of confidence.
Drawing strength from a mental image of a smiling Hutch, Starsky met Levinthal's eyes and held that unwavering gaze. "It's only fair I tell you upfront I'm in a homosexual relationship. My relationship with Hutch is permanent and non-negotiable."
Levinthal didn't grimace or show distaste. "I know. I owe your partner a debt of gratitude for saving my friend's life." A small smile lifted the corners of his mouth. "Dobey and I were at the Academy together, and my wife and Edith are quite close." The smile faded into blandness again. "I mentioned the unorthodox nature of your assessment center. My hands were tied, I'm afraid. When I put your name up for approval for the special promotion required to use you in my new unit, I got considerable resistance from some members of the supervisory board. I finally made them a bargain, and got it in writing. If you could pass the lieutenant's exam without advance warning or time to prepare, I could promote you to the position of my choice. It was a roll of the dice, but I don't mind gambling for a good cause."
"With all due respect, sir, you rolled the dice on my job!"
"I didn't get where I am today without knowing the value of a contingency plan. If you'd failed the exam, I would've played the ace up my sleeve. We don't need to discuss what that ace was. You came through, as I knew you would."
Relaxing in his chair, Starsky allowed a smile to form. "That's why I got everything thrown at me in one day, written exam, oral, all of it. I thought Richards had a way to use that exam to force me out."
"He thought I was finding a way for him to do just that." Levinthal had a sudden sharp twist to his mouth that revealed a shark within the progressive reformer. "Timing was important in more ways than one with your promotion. I was reluctant to put you in the uncomfortable position of sitting on the review board while sexual orientation was still grounds for dismissal. As of last Thursday night, the BCPD has a new policy that no officer can be removed from duty because of perceived or proven orientation."
"I saw it on the news that night. Couldn't believe it at first."
Levinthal nodded. "We're several years, if not a decade, ahead of departments elsewhere in California. That's my intention. I hope in the near future we'll have officers take the brave step of serving while being open about their orientation." He frowned suddenly, but without anger. "I don't want that to be you, Starsky. I don't want you to be a pioneer."
Sitting back in his chair, Levinthal rolled his pen back and forth across the edge of his desk blotter. "It's not safe. I don't want you in the kind of danger you'd be in if you tried to be the vanguard."
"What are you saying exactly? You gotta know, after seven years, my relationship with Hutch is not really a great big secret."
"I know. Here are the ground rules, Starsky. I'm not asking you to lie about Hutch or refrain from discussing your personal life with your trusted friends on the force. In addition, I took the liberty of speaking to Lieutenant Cato about recruiting you for a position on the HCT. He's heard the rumors about your relationship with Dr. Hutchinson, and he asked me to assure you that he would be glad to have you on his team. I'm sure he'll tell you so himself. You would have room to breathe. I'm simply asking you to hold to the same discretion you've shown at the Academy."
Starsky winced. "No photos on my desk, no personal calls that can be overheard, no lunch dates in the cafeteria like some of the officers enjoy with their legal spouses. I know the drill by now, sir."
Levinthal looked sympathetic. "I would like to see a police department that will accept a top-notch cop as top-notch regardless of race, gender, creed, or sexual orientation, and that's one of my goals for my term in this position, but that day hasn't fully arrived yet, and you have to be able to work safely with your fellow officers. Let someone younger, who hasn't had to fight your battles, be the one to cross the orientation line. Do you understand?"
Starsky held in a sigh. "Yes."
"I won't lie to you. Even though you won't be on record with your sexuality, you'll face prejudice and fear based on what is assumed about you, but we're making progress, Starsky. Ten years ago, John Blaine wouldn't have made lieutenant if he hadn't been so carefully closeted and leading a textbook cover life. That's the reality I'm offering you. If you can't work within the confines of that reality, I understand."
Starsky knew he had to choose his words carefully. He had to be honest, but he couldn't afford to alienate the man behind the desk. "I think the reality needs some work. But, truth is, I've never liked using my personal life as a platform. I've been outta this department for seven years. You've been near the top of it. You tell me it's not safe for me to be the first one out of the closet, you got a damn good reason for it, and you're in a position to know. Making some political statement's sure as hell not worth a chance I might check out early on Hutch. If you asked me to lie about Hutch, I'd be walking out that door, but I can live with not advertising."
Levinthal's face showed a surprising amount of respect. "It's because of people like you that one day a police officer won't have to worry about what he or she can or can't advertise. Are you on board, Lieutenant-to-be Starsky?"
Tuesday, July 15th, 1986
Hutch arrived home at 2:15 a.m., stumbling from car to front door in an exhausted stupor born of trauma after trauma with no time for a pee break, never mind a phone call, and a freeway pileup that had killed his plan to sign out for an hour and meet Starsky downtown after the meeting with Levinthal. The massive collision had wrecked his ability to complain, even, because how could he gripe when the fourteen traumas Memorial fielded had a hell of a lot more to whine about, the ones who were conscious, at least. Hutch had worked alongside Mannigan and the other physicians to deliver four of the freeway pileup victims into the surgeons' hands with a chance for survival. The whole time his heart strayed elsewhere, ruthlessly separated from the mind he had to give completely to his work, aching over Starsky, throbbing until his whole body felt it. Home, finally, he didn't bother getting a drink out of the fridge or rummaging for a snack. He headed straight from the front door to their bedroom.
Starsky slept on his side, and the flat sheet draping carelessly across his hip revealed his upper body's rugged muscularity. Hutch stood in the doorway and watched him sleep. Face soft in the stream of moonlight from their window, Starsky looked no older than twenty. Hutch knew it was an illusion, a trick of the lighting and his own eternally young vision of his lover. Both of them worked in their own ways to keep in shape and at peak performance. Both received compliments on their youthful appearance. Neither could hold back time.
Time always weighed differently past the barrier of forty, and internally, Starsky would never again be flawless. The events of a May seven years in the past had seen to that. Hutch felt the weight of work and stress in places he used to blissfully ignore as well. He wore his hair a little long because he needed to enjoy it while he still had it: so far he'd escaped the worst of the vicious receding hairline prominent in his family, but the fate lurked somewhere in his genes.
He showered, again--the shower at Memorial had left him pink-skinned and half-scalded without removing the film of sweat, pain, and what-ifs -- and dried off haphazardly, leaving the towel and his clothes in a messy pile on the steam-dampened floor. Naked and still damp himself, he stood at the bedside and contemplated a privilege he hadn't given much thought. That he held the unquestioned right to pull back the covers and slide between the sheets beside the man who slept with such innocent trust, that he could snuggle up to his warm nudity and find total acceptance, what a miracle that was. Hutch swallowed hard, awed that it hadn't dawned on him before. He crawled into bed and reached out to caress Starsky's shoulder, inched closer and brushed kisses over the strong brow and up into dark curls.
"Should've been there." Hutch tasted toothpaste and sleep in Starsky's mouth. "I'm sorry. I tried. I was prepared to go to Mannigan and offer him the next 500 days of my life if he'd just sign me out for an hour this afternoon, but then there was a pileup on the--"
"Hey, hey, I know, saw it on the news, why I didn't try to call. Knew you'd be swamped." Hutch wasn't ready for absolution. He ducked his head and lipped at Starsky's shoulder. "How many victims you get from the crash?"
"We fielded fourteen, four critical on arrival and requiring surgery. We did what we could and sent them off to the OR on a wing and a medical prayer."
"Manage to pull 'em all through?" Starsky trailed a fingertip across Hutch's brow.
"We did. Surgical and nonsurgical. All fourteen ranged from serious to stable condition when I left. I think Mannigan wanted to dance on top of the nurse's station counter."
Starsky gave a crack of hoarse laughter. "I'd pay money to see that show."
"So would the entire ER staff. It'd be a great fundraiser. I should mention that to the Financial Office. Now stop changing the subject. I'm trying to say something here."
"I'm all ears."
"I was in and out of the waiting area talking to family members, and Maureen had her little radio on at her desk, turned down low, but I could still hear it, and let me tell you something, Starsky, nothing's a wakeup call like Rock the Casbah and big hair and acid-washed jeans and kamikaze t-shirts. No more afros, bellbottoms, and platform shoes, no sir, we've left the seventies in the dust, partner."
"Hutch, you're making no sense."
"Yes, yes, I am, I'm saying I need to catch up with time, Starsky. You're forty-one, I'm headed there fast, and hopefully we got decades ahead of us, but life's too short to give in to what Richards is doing. We'll fight it all the way, and if we can't win, and Levinthal's backing him, then no sweat, and you know why? We've got something they can't touch. We've got us, damn it. You wanna tell me there's no city in this country that'd give a cop with your record some shot at police work that doesn't put you in the field? No, no. We'll move to Buttcrack, North Dakota if we have to, buddy, we'll..." Hutch slumped against Starsky's shoulder, mouth open in a snore.
"Bambi." Hutch pointed at the Turner, R.C. on the intake board. "When was this patient brought back?"
"About fifteen minutes ago. He's next on Oates's list."
"African-American male, mid-forties, hearing impaired, mute, accompanied by a tall white guy, heavy in the middle, also hearing impaired and very childlike?"
Bambi stared at him. "How on earth--!"
"Give Oates the possible UTI with disorientation in Exam Three. I'm taking this one."
"Hutch, this isn't a trauma, it's severe epigastric pain, persistent vomiting, low-grade fever, malaise, restlessness."
"I don't care if it's just a runny nose. It's mine. Mannigan can take it up with me later. Who's on today that knows sign language?"
"Caroline. She took down the patient's information at triage."
"Round her up and send her to Exam Six." Hutch moved his name magnet until it fully covered the patient name and reached for the chart in its slot in the stand-up file. All the way down the corridor he told himself not to jump to conclusions while a nasty voice whispered pancreas in the back of his mind.
He and Bambi diverged at the turn in the corridor, she off to find Caroline, he to Exam Six. When he opened the door, what he saw froze him on the threshold. Larry sat rock still in the visitor chair, hunched over, his elbows propped on the chair arms, his lips pressed to his knuckles, and stared at the man in quiet agony in the exam bed. In the blink of an eye, the ER turned into an ICU hallway.
Hutch gripped the metallic bound chart at his side until he threatened to leave fingertip dents in the already scratched metal. He couldn't do this. Of all days, he couldn't do this today, knowing Starsky was downtown taking his first steps toward re-instatement: physical, police psychologist evaluation of mental fitness for duty. Hutch had teased Starsky as expected for that one -- "Well, sorry, pal, it was a nice dream while it lasted," to which Starsky tossed back a "Dickhead!"
That morning over coffee Hutch had listened while Starsky gushed about sitting on the review board, teaching seminars to new detectives, and consulting with Jim Gibson on the Academy courses he would take over in Starsky's absence. It sounded wonderful, but though Hutch's heart struck up the hundred-piece orchestra, his logical mind warned him there was a vital piece missing. Starsky talked too quickly, too boyishly enthused, to be telling the whole story. Eventually, the rambling had come to a halt, replaced by assorted gestures of encouragement to join in the excitement.
Hutch matched his partner's smile. "Starsk, I'm ecstatic. I knew you didn't fail that exam, prep or no prep. If I didn't have to go on shift, I'd get us a ridiculously expensive bottle of champagne and we'd celebrate."
"We'll celebrate later." Starsky's eyebrows perched wickedly high on his forehead.
"Speaking of schedules, what happens at the Academy, Starsky? Full-time session doesn't end until August, and your session with the part-timers runs until January."
"I'm out all the way. Situation like this, there's always a price to pay, and that's mine. Levinthal said he'd convince Richards to put in my personnel file that I left to pursue other career opportunities. What I can do is prepare Jim Gibson to take my place out there. Daniel Bryson has two more sessions in him before retirement and then all my courses oughta go to Jim. Between him and Clifton, they can keep alive what I tried to do out there, if they get the chance."
"Ah, babe. I know that's a high price for you to pay, having to walk out on the cadets."
"Yeah, it's rough. I'll miss ‘em, every single one, but this is one of those all-or-nothing deals. It's better this way. When Richards realizes he was duped in this whole thing, he'll be out for blood, and I don't want cadets dragged on to our battleground again like Leitner and Kent."
"I'd love to be a fly on the wall when Richards gets wind of the real reason Levinthal had you take the lieutenant's exam. Serves the bastard right." Hutch cleared his throat. "Not to downplay your great news, but I have a feeling there's something you haven't sprung on me yet. I mean, reinstatement to do administrative--"
"That's for starters."
"Levinthal wants me to train for hostage negotiation. He wants a former street cop on the Hostage Crisis Team. The behind-the-scenes negotiation part of the team, not the sniper or SWAT part."
"Hostage negotiation? Hostage. Negotiation." Hutch tugged at his earlobe, worked his jaw. "I'm sorry. I must have wax in my ears. I actually thought I heard you say something about hostage negotiation."
"Hutch? You okay?"
He'd meant what he'd said in the wee hours, moments ahead of falling asleep and dripping drool on Starsky's shoulder, but hostage negotiation? No matter how Levinthal packaged it that was field work. Even now panic was crashing in on him. Starsky's willingness to give his life for others played on the screen of Hutch's memory in a terrifying montage: driving a bomb-car away from civilization; leaving to meet Prudholm at an empty zoo; emptying bullets into Bellamy; urging Hutch to abandon him in a barn set to incinerate; reaching for his gun and taking assassin fire; rushing a gun to protect Academy cadets.
Hutch swallowed hard, his instinct to help where he was needed most overcoming his temporary emotional paralysis, and entered the exam room, gently closing the door behind him in spite of the two men's insensitivity to noise. Easing over to the chair, he tapped Larry on the shoulder.
Red-eyed, big round face tear-splotched, Larry shot a frantic look upward and then barreled out of his chair. Hutch prepared for a crush injury. Happy Larry could bruise ribs with his hugs; frantic Larry could break a man in half. Hutch patted the big man's back with R.C.'s chart and then nicely but forcefully withdrew from the scared-manchild embrace before he needed internal suturing.
He made sure Larry had clear sight of his face for lip-reading and said, "Larry, it's okay. Larry."
Larry's hands flashed through a series of gestures, his expressive face trying to catch up, pantomiming pain, vomiting, and what looked like fever when he put his hand over his forehead and jerked it away as though burned. Hutch nodded. "Larry, just wait. Okay? I have a nurse coming. You understand? A nurse? A nurse who knows sign language."
Nodding, Larry pointed both hands at the bed, his face twisting in despair.
"I know." Hutch squeezed his shoulder. "I'll do my best to make R.C. feel better. Understand?"
Fifteen feet from the nurse's station, Starsky heard the young nursing assistant Neena say, "Heads up! Eye candy twelve o'clock high." Bambi looked up from her chart and smiled.
"Denim and suede. Didn't he get the memo that it's summer? Put him in boots and a cowboy hat and he could be the New Marlboro Man," said Peter, the technician.
Well, yeah, Starsky could read a calendar, thanks, but he couldn't exactly show up at a police physical as a prospective Detective Lieutenant wearing cutoffs and a tank-top, and didn't this little peanut gallery realize he could hear them?
Munching on french fries, Maureen elbowed Peter. "Feeling a little threatened?"
Peter smirked and playfully returned her elbow jab. "Are you kidding? I don't have to compete with him. That's the beauty of this alternative lifestyle. Two eligible men off the market, no women in the equation. That means more women for me."
"Oh, that's enlightened and tolerant, Peter," Neena teased. "Go to the head of the class."
Bambi laughed. "Imagine him in the classroom."
"I have. Many times." Maureen wagged a ketchup-dripping fry at her, and then pointed it at Starsky. "That man could distract a class full of Jesuits."
Bambi set down her chart and adjusted the barrette holding her curls in check. "Hush, girl. How would Huggy feel if he heard you say that?"
Maureen simpered. "Huggy Bear Brown might not win a Mr. Universe pageant, but he has charm. And I could tell you where his charm lies...but then I'd hafta kill ya."
Starsky leaned his elbow on the counter and winked at Maureen, who had polished off her fries and carefully wiped her mouth. Maureen burst out laughing and gave Starsky's shoulder a hearty shove. "My late lunch break's over. I'm heading back to Reception before an avalanche of paperwork takes out half the waiting area." She glided gracefully away--as gracefully as anyone could glide in stiletto boots and tight-fitting business suit.
Bambi's chuckle sounded maternally fond. "I might be old-fashioned in my ideas about men, but I wouldn't have thought a beanpole in neon pants and jelly bracelets could turn Maureen's head."
"You just don't have all the facts." Starsky's smile widened. "Huggy Bear is a great guy and his fashion sense has nothing to do with it."
Caroline joined them, looking frayed around the edges. "God, what a day, and it's not over! Hullo, Starsky, you'll be a sight for Hutch's sore eyes."
Bambi wasn't to be sidetracked. "Well, fill me in then. What's his secret? Maureen's been closemouthed, which, as you know, isn't like her."
"Bambi!" Caroline sounded shocked. "Are you pumping Starsky for info on Maureen's squeeze?"
Starsky controlled a shout of laughter with an exaggerated smirk. Bambi nodded. "She means a lot to us, Caroline; shouldn't we know something about this guy? I mean, what does he do, for crying out loud?"
"He's a businessman. In addition to a bar-restaurant, he owns a film production company." Starsky made a tsk-tsk motion at her. "Bambi, you should see your face! You got scandalized suspicion all over it. I'll have you know it's a small, independent, but perfectly legit and respectable venture. One'a these days, I'll tell you how he won it."
"Won it?" Caroline took a turn at suspicion, her expressive brown eyes narrowing.
"Like in a card game...or a bet?" Bambi asked.
"Something like that." Starsky leaned over the counter and pecked her on the cheek. "Promise you this: next staff party, we'll tuck ourselves away in a corner and get smashed on those blueberry twists Dr. Westley concocts, and I'll tell you all about it."
Caroline was giggling, but Bambi sported a blush to match her curls. "You're a riotous flirt, David Starsky. I don't know how Hutch handles you."
"With both hands on the wheel, heavy on the accelerator, and a soft touch on the brakes."
Dr. Westley, surfboard in tow, rounded the corner from the Receiving entrance. Bambi hailed him with a pinky-thumb whistle. Shorter than the long board he carried and pale pink to his far receded hairline, the Attending physician came to a sudden stop and stared at her. Bambi shook her finger at him. "Wes, I've told you, when you bring your board, you've got to use the staff entrance."
"But this is my San Onofre '64 Special," Westley said, as if that explained everything.
"I don't care if Brian Wilson penned the lyrics to Surfer Girl on the fin. If Mannigan sees you, he'll give new meaning to apoplexy." Westley scurried in the direction of the staff locker room. Bambi groaned. "I work in a circus."
Peter took a sip from his water bottle with a loud ahh of quenched thirst. "You insist on being called Bambi instead of Beatrice, yet you've never starred in a porn film. I'd say you fit right in."
"I'd prefer people think I was a porn star in my salad days than call me Beatrice."
Peter laughed. "Welcome to the circus."
Starsky cleared his throat. "Um, Beatrice? Where's Hutch?"
"Sorry, Professor. He's either in the lounge or Exam Six. He's expecting you, so head on back."
Starsky tried the lounge first. He found Hutch alone and chowing down on a sandwich of some white meat and sprouts - the sandwich so sickly looking it warranted its own gurney and IV stand - and talking into his micro-recorder. "Chief Complaint: Status post construction accident. History of Present Illness: Patient is 30-year-old Hispanic male--" A clump of sprouts plopped down on the chart in front of Hutch. "Damn it." Muttering, he fumbled the buttons on the recorder until a tinny version of his voice said, "Hispanic male." Hutch clicked another button.
"Who knew eating while dictating was kinda like walking and chewing gum at the same time? No, wait, you oughta be good at it, then."
Hutch jerked around in his chair, dropping both sandwich and recorder, one to the plate and the other on to the chart, and luckily in the right order. "Very funny. The way today's going, if I didn't, I'd have to choose, and fasting like a lion doesn't work for me anymore. Employee Health at police headquarters got my message to you?"
Starsky joined him at the table and couldn't resist running his hand over Hutch's hair and thumbing a smear of mustard from his chin. "Yeah, I was on the treadmill when you called. What's going down?"
"Larry and R.C. showed up in the ER this morning."
"Oh, God. Which one?"
"R.C." Hutch rubbed his brow. "Acute pancreatitis. He's in observation, waiting on a bed upstairs. Larry won't budge from the room. I've been in and out to check on them, and the last time I went in, R.C. had scribbled me a note." He dug in his lab coat pocket and pulled out the scrap paper, handing it over.
Starsky looked down; a lump settled in his throat. Call Starsky. Please. For Larry. "Oh, man. Is it serious; what's the deal with pancreatitis? Is there an easy fix? What can you tell me?"
"I made sure R.C. meant for me to talk to you about his condition before I brought you in on the situation. The pancreatitis is one thing. Yes, we can treat that. Problem is, R.C. isn't an alcoholic. He doesn't drink at all. Alcoholism certainly isn't the only cause of pancreatitis, but it's one of the more common. He'll be put through a battery of tests--"
"Hutch, when you start sounding like a medical textbook, I know you're rattled. What are you worried about? Hit me with what's got you rubbing your forehead and smearing more mustard - here." Starsky licked his fingers and brushed them over the sticky yellow streak.
"It's possible the pancreatitis is caused by a tumor. R.C.'s worked in a print shop for a decade, exposed to chemicals, some of which are likely carcinogenic. He's at the right age, a smoker too, and there's evidence to suggest a higher incidence of pancreatic carcinoma in African-American men."
Starsky winced. "Ouch. Pancreatic cancer? That's one of the nasties, huh?"
"One of the nastiest and it's not slow moving, either."
"Damn. There's a chance that's not the cause, though, right?"
"Yes, there's a chance. We'll know more after some of the blood work and the CAT scan results are in. Right now, I need you to coax Larry out of the room and to the cafeteria for a bite to eat."
"I can do that, sure. I'll see if I can get a key out of him, too. Go by their place and get some stuff for him. Can you pull some strings and make sure he can stay with R.C.?"
"I'll do my best. They're each other's family, and I'll make someone hear me on that." Hutch sighed. His expression changed. "How'd the physical go?"
"Ran the treadmill like a sprinter. Nearly busted their equipment. I'll hear the results of the other tests in a few days." Hutch's tentative but loving smile deserved the fullest truth Starsky could give, worth a difficult admission. "I wouldn't qualify for the active duty we used to pull, but I got the goods for what the department wants from me now."
"I know you do. That's not--" Hutch snapped his lips shut and averted his eyes. "You'll be a much needed shot in the arm for Metro, and Levinthal's smart to recognize it."
Starsky stroked the cheek turned toward him, marveling at the fair skin beneath his touch. He'd never wanted to cause his miracle-man one second of pain. So tell Levinthal you'll stick to admin work and leave hostage negotiation out of the equation. He cradled the vulnerable cheek in his palm. I could do it. For Hutch, I could. He tried for a reassuring smile, certain Hutch would call it crooked, but his lips didn't want to twist right, corners tugging down. "I could say no."
Hutch shot him a look straight out of the interrogation room. Starsky found himself looking for the bulge of holster and Magnum under the lab coat, and God, he was probably some kind of freaky pervert that the combination of holstered gun and ER scrubs left him dry mouthed and throbbing against his zipper.
"Look me in the eyes and hit me with the hard truth. Do you need this?"
Damn it. Trust Hutch to turn the tables on him. He remembered asking Hutch the same question on the day Hutch sat him down and brainstormed about medical school. He couldn't possibly lie to those gorgeous eyes that left him breathless with the right look. "Yeah, Hutch. I need it."
Hutch nodded. "Then I'll tell you the same thing you told me what seems like forever ago: we'll do whatever we have to, to make it happen."
Starsky told himself the tremor he felt beneath his palm, the waver he heard in Hutch's strong voice had everything to do with fatigue, nothing to do with fear. He didn't believe himself. "Later, babe. We'll get it all hashed out."
"When? God only knows when I'll get out of here tonight, and I'm on again tomorrow."
"We'll have Thursday, right? Thursday's ours. You promised you'd ask for it off."
"I did. Three weeks ago. But--"
The lounge door opened, and Starsky hastily shoved his hand in his pocket. Trevor Mannigan entered the room in a straight line for the coffee machine. He punched the selection buttons that allowed the staff to bypass the coin slot, and a cup promptly descended followed by a whizzing stream of hot, viscous caffeine. Not sparing a moment for the drink to cool, Mannigan lifted the cup straight to his lips and knocked the coffee back in a single continuous gulp. Hutch clutched at his throat in clear sympathy for Mannigan's, and Starsky's mouth fell open.
Mannigan crumpled the cup and tossed it in the nearby wastebasket. "Incoming, Hutch. Boating accident. We're fielding a near drowning and what will probably end up a multiple amputation at best."
Starsky wondered how the man could talk with a scalded tongue.
"I'll meet you at Observation Three," Hutch whispered to Starsky, dashing from the room with his chart and recorder, the sorry excuse for a sandwich forgotten.
Mannigan's voice stopped Starsky in mid bolt for the door. "I hear congratulations are in order."
Starsky almost looked to see if someone else had entered the room. "Hm?"
"Hutch told me about your reinstatement and promotion, David. I'm impressed."
Direct praise from Trevor Mannigan had the effect of stunning anyone who received it, but Starsky felt more of an impact from Hutch's willingness to mention the news to his superior. "It's not official yet."
Mannigan brushed that aside with the flick of a wrist. "It soon will be, I'm sure."
Mannigan gave him the dreaded quirked brow. "As your former treating physician, I'd like you to keep something in mind. You're a welcome sight here in your current state, but Hutch isn't the only one who doesn't want to see you come in on a gurney. I'll be damned if I want to piece you back together again and send you off to another do-or-die surgery, or lose the best trauma fellowship candidate I've seen in years because I can't get you that far. It wouldn't take nearly as much now to send you here in that condition."
He left Starsky standing in an empty room that had apparently shrunk to half its actual size or had nearly all of the air sucked from it by some invisible vacuum.
"What's wrong?" Hutch asked outside Observation Three. Starsky had on the disgruntled, uncomfortable expression he usually wore out of an IA interrogation.
"Nothing," Starsky muttered, tight jawed.
"Hutch. They ready for me?"
"Yes. You might have a fight on your hands. Just be firm, and--"
"Hutch, come on. I could handle Larry in my sleep with my hands tied behind my back."
The pain meds had finally worked their magic for R.C., who drowsed calmly in the bed. Larry hadn't moved an inch that Hutch could see from his last visit. The movement of Starsky's soft-footed approach must have caught Larry's eye: he did his shot-out-of-a-cannon impersonation, grabbing Starsky. Hutch held his breath in sympathy pain.
Cringing, Starsky untangled himself. "Larry?" He waved his hands to stop the pantomime retelling of all that R.C. had been through. "I know. Hutch told me. I'm sorry R.C.'s so sick. Hutch is doing all he can to make him better. And the other docs here, they'll do their best. You did the right thing, calling the medics and bringin' him here. Understand?" At Larry's nod, Starsky clasped him by the upper arms. "Why don't we go to the cafeteria? You need to eat. Maybe get a cup of coffee. What you say?"
Larry frantically shook his head, twisting in Starsky's hold on his arms to wave his hands at the bed. Hutch squeezed his shoulder. "Larry, it's okay. R.C. will be fine while you're gone for that short while. They have good chocolate meringue pie, Larry."
Larry's face brightened but just as quickly darkened again with another headshake. Starsky let out a concerned, frustrated huff and said, "Larry, if you won't leave the room, you'll need some stuff. Okay? Can you give me a key, let me go by your apartment and get some things for you?"
Pulling his arms free Larry held out his left arm with its wristwatch and pointed at it, drawing his finger in a circle around the clock face.
Starsky eyed Hutch, who shrugged. "Um, circle? No. Uh, hours? Yeah?" Larry circled the watch face again. "Twenty-four hours. Tomorrow?" Larry nodded, smiling. "You want me to go by your place, but not today, tomorrow?" Another beaming nod.
Larry mimed two little perked ears over his head with his fingers and then imitated a cat's paw clawing at the air and rubbed his tummy, pointing at both Starsky and Hutch.
"You want Starsky to make sure the cats are fed," Hutch guessed.
Larry pointed at Hutch.
"Hutch, the doctor or Hutch, the cat?" Starsky asked. He got another cat's paw. "Hutch the cat." Larry pointed at the space under R.C.'s bed and mimed looking under the bed, making that cat's paw gesture. "Hutch the cat likes to hide under R.C.'s bed."
"You want Starsky to make sure he isn't doing that."
"I need you to give me a key, Larry."
Larry shook his head. He went over to the door and waved his hands at it and then bent over, wiping his hands across the floor an inch or two above the surface.
"Doormat?" Hutch asked.
Larry pointed at the floor. "There's a spare key under the doormat?" Starsky gave him a gently scolding look. "Larry, that's not a safe place for you to keep a key."
"Starsky--" Hutch started.
"Uh-uh," Starsky shushed him. "You don't get to join any discussion about safe places for keys, buddy." Hutch started to raise his finger, but noticed that Larry had tensed, his face worried, his eyes skittish, like a child worried his parents were about to fight.
He smiled instead. "It's okay, Larry. Starsky's teasing me. He's not angry, I'm not angry."
"Larry, Hutch and Nurse Bambi and Nurse Caroline will be checking on R.C. whenever they can. Understand? Come on to the cafeteria with me, huh?"
Larry's stomach chose then to rumble loudly. He gave them a smile of embarrassment, looked again at his sleeping friend in the bed, and nodded. Starsky sighed his relief.
The door opened, Caroline peeking in. "Mannigan needs you, Hutch. Incoming at triage. Those boating accident traumas. Rush, rush."
"We got him to surgery, Hutch. It's up to the surgical trauma team now."
"I'm surprised he didn't succumb to alcohol poisoning before the accident occurred! Drinks down an entire liquor cabinet before taking his boat out in a restricted area, and now he'll be without an arm and a leg if he survives the surgery."
"It's still a win, Hutch. Shock and blood loss are ruthless killers, and it's a win that he's made it this far. I think I'll be the one talking to his family." Mannigan's eyes showed understanding.
"I had the lead in there; they need to hear it from me," Hutch argued, looking back to the trauma room. "Don't coddle me, Trevor."
Mannigan laughed. Hutch whipped around to stare: he'd never heard the sound and had long doubted its existence. The deep rumble of laughter faded quickly. "That's the first time I've been accused of coddling anyone. I should mark a calendar."
Hutch allowed the angry line in his lips to ease into a half-smile. "Sorry. It's just so--"
"The senseless tragedies get to you, Hutch. They get to all of us. You have to compartmentalize, so that when you've lost three in a row--and that happens--you can save the next."
"Right. I'll find his parents."
"No." Mannigan's voice demanded obedience. "I meant what I said. Your anger is too close to the surface. If you think there weren't times my supervising physician had to take charge of this during my residency, you're deluding yourself. It's an acquired control, Hutch, and it doesn't come overnight." He held out his free hand expectantly.
Hutch gave him the chart. "I'm having an off day. There's no excuse for it."
Mannigan nodded. "I know, and I have a good idea why. That's an acquired control, too. I believe we discussed this in February?"
Hutch flushed at the memory. "Yes. Your message came across loud and clear."
"Get this message with equal volume and clarity. If I didn't believe in your ability to acquire that control, I would've rejected your trauma fellowship application in April."
Hutch breathed deeply, and the knot in his chest loosened. "I understand."
"You haven't let your off day affect your patient care, and that's the key. Keep this in mind: what a physician can't do under extreme pressure, he can't do at all."
Mannigan's eyes softened again. "I have had someone threaten to carve that in stone and set it on my desk, yes." With a quirk of left eyebrow, he sank Hutch's hopes of avoiding other troublesome topics. "Don't think I won't ask you later to explain why you're monitoring a case of pancreatitis instead of leaving it for Oates. Your reason better relate to clinical benefit, or we'll have a serious problem."
Starsky could tell Dobey was a happy man. He heard the hum of Edith's conversation in the kitchen, where she talked to her sister while she cooked, courtesy of a discarded Metro speakerphone. Dobey had one of Edith's low-sugar, virgin tropical drinks chilling on the end table beside him and Sunday night's recorded Dodgers versus Cubs game on the TV. For Dobey, church came before baseball, but the nifty invention, the VCR, made it possible for the captain to have both God and the national pastime. Starsky made appropriate commentary here and there, avidly heckled the umps, but he couldn't really focus, and any second Dobey would call him on it.
"Valenzuela's got his stuff," Dobey said.
Starsky nodded. "He might take them to another division title this season."
"Starsky, what's going on?"
"You're not even paying attention to the game."
Busted. "I'm payin' attention."
"Sure you are. It's the third inning, and Welch is pitching, not Valenzuela. If you can't tell a tall, white righty from a Mexican southpaw, you're in serious trouble."
Starsky gulped down some soda. "Lot on my mind, Cap'n. Nothing you need to worry about."
"Meaning, it has to do with you and Hutch, and you think I don't want to hear it. Starsky, I'm not your boss. You don't have to worry about telling me something I don't need to know. Haven't been your boss for years. I had hoped I would become a good friend."
That startled Starsky. "You are a good friend. To both Hutch and me."
"That's it, then." Dobey folded his hands below his noticeably smaller middle. "You think it'd be disloyal to talk about him with me."
"Nah," Starsky denied. "It's not that. You probably know about my reinstatement offer."
Dobey smiled. "Yes. Aron--Commissioner Levinthal--called and talked it over with me. He offered me a post high on the food chain, said he bet I'd had enough retirement, but I told him I was enjoying a prolonged second honeymoon."
Starsky laughed. "Retirement ain't all bad, huh?"
"When you're at my stage of life, you've given all you can give, and you know it's the only choice left you, sure it's not bad. You're not me, Starsky."
Only one couch cushion divided them, but Starsky felt farther away than the opposite end of the couch--all the way over at County Memorial Medical Center. "Hutch is having a hard time with it. I don't understand. If I wanted to partner up and go out on the streets in a z-unit without him, yeah, I'd see where he's coming from. I have a feeling people know something about Hutch I don't."
"What you mean? Who, what people?"
"What would he know about Hutch that you don't?"
"Today, Mannigan told me he'd lose the best trauma candidate in years if I came into the ER on a gurney and didn't make it. It's the way he said it, like he's not just worried about Hutch's career."
Dobey clicked the power button on the remote. "Well, I've seen the dress rehearsal, and Hutch wasn't any better off than you were when he had that deadly virus."
"Starsky, the day you were shot, your surgeon told us you would die. He told us by all rights you should've been DOA and it was a miracle Dr. Mannigan held you together long enough for you to make it to the OR. We were warned you had hours at most before your heart gave out. Your heart did give out in the ICU, and the doctor on shift brought you back, but your surgeon still prepared us that you wouldn't likely survive the night."
"Hutch told me all about what Dr. Bachman said and--"
"Did Hutch tell you what those hours were like for him with you in a coma?"
"No, he's never wanted to talk about it. We left it in the past."
"You have a right to know. Hutch went out to exact legal retribution for your death, which he believed was a foregone conclusion. He didn't really care what happened to him. I faced losing both of you. When he went out a second time, I sent Huggy after him. Huggy came back an incoherent wreck. He said he was afraid Hutch would take on the angels fist to fist if he could find the right staircase. Early on the day you woke up, Hutch went down to the ER. He came back to the ICU looking human for the first time since you went down on the pavement, like he'd gotten hope from somewhere. A while later, I got an in-house call from Dr. Mannigan. He advised sedation for Hutch if you didn't wake up in the next twelve hours. He warned me that Hutch had a walking-dead look and wasn't necessarily too young to suffer a heart attack from the strain. You woke up four hours later, and Hutch bounced back to life with you. All of this is clear as a bell in my memory, so you can imagine how vivid it still is to him."
Starsky now held his cola glass in both hands, but still it shook, ice clinking against the sides.
"Now, listen good, Starsky. In this life there are some promises that can't be made, promises you shouldn't ask someone to make. If the worst happens, it's Hutch's choice and responsibility how he responds to it. The same as it's up to you how you handle whatever might happen to him. I think you're right to steer clear of street duty. It's getting to be a cesspool out there. Cop killers are on every corner carrying weapons you couldn't have bought on the black market ten years ago. But what Aron's offering is a good fit for you at this stage in the game. Don't feel guilty if it's something you need."
"God it's good to hear you say that. I've been feeling like I'm committing some kinda felony."
Dobey reached across the dividing cushion and briefly clasped Starsky's shoulder, a moment of consoling human contact, then withdrew to neutral distance. "A few months back, Hutch stopped by here anxious about what pursuing that trauma fellowship would mean for you two. How it would impact you. I encouraged him to reach for what he wanted and sent him home to talk to you, because I knew you'd tell him the same thing. Hutch isn't the only one with a right to be happy in his professional life. If you aren't happy with how you earn your daily bread, you'll regret it down the road."
Starsky picked at the folds of his t-shirt. "I won't be happy if he's miserable."
"He won't be!" Dobey barked, slipping back into his old voice. "That man loves you more than life. You haven't just been shacked up together, you know. Took something real and deep to build what you two have." Starsky shot him a slightly embarrassed smile that made Dobey laugh. "Amazing what I can say after I've come up against the Hereafter."
Starsky grinned. "Yeah, I know something about that."
"You know him better than I do. Can't you see what he's doing? He's imagining worst-case scenarios and trying to come to grips, but he'll realize what this means to you, and he'll be tripping over himself to support you all down the line. He'll be happy doing it, too, even if he does get worried every now and then." Dobey harrumphed. "Tell him he can talk to me whenever he needs to. I know where both of you are coming from. Med school is nothing compared to the degree I got in Inseparable Partnerships."
Starsky chuckled. "You're a smart man, Captain."
"That's why I was in the office with the nameplate on the door, and if that department had any sense, you'd be the next in line."
Coughing against his fist, Starsky shook his head. "Thanks, but Levinthal's sticking his neck out as it is. There's still racism and other 'isms in the BCPD, no matter how hard good cops fight against it, so you know it'll take even longer to root out departmental prejudice against homosexuality. I'll settle for helping a good man I trust get there."
"Meaning Mike Babcock? Yes, he's good, and he'll do right by you. He'll listen to you, so don't hesitate to exercise some power behind the throne."
Starsky laughed again. "Captain."
Dobey shrugged. "What? What'd I say?"
"Getting Machiavellian in your old age."
"Old age, hell," Dobey snorted. "Ask Edith how old I am."
"Edith's no kiss-and-tell, Cap'n."
"Damn right." Dobey held up the remote. "You ready to pay attention to the game now?"
"Sure." Starsky smiled and sprawled, relaxed, on the couch. "I'll wager a box of fat-free brownies from The Chocolate Box for you, against a pound of Papa's Best salami for me, that Marshall goes yard in at least one of his next two at bats."
"It's a bet, Lieutenant."
"You know, it's not official yet, Cap'n."
"Hah. If Aron gets his way, you'll have your badge by close of business Monday."
Hutch sometimes hated night in the ER: the outside darkness combining with the drama in the trauma rooms hit him where it hurt most. Here it was nearly midnight, and he still had dictation left to do before he could escape home to Starsky. Jesus, Memorial on a regular day could test the endurance of a Shaolin priest. Memorial minus one Attending was the blueprint for Hell and universal chaos. He tried to make sense of the problem chart while he walked, navigating the corridors from habit, willing to do damn near anything to avoid Mannigan. No such luck. Mannigan's writing on this particular chart remained completely illegible after ten minutes of study with a magnifying glass.
He stopped outside Mannigan's unusually open office. Peering in, he held deathly still. Mannigan slept, likely having conked out while reading a patient's file, now spread out under his weary head. What halted Hutch's forward momentum was Mannigan's face. A stray lock of slate-gray hair tumbling down his forehead softened his features to boy-like, but he looked tense, worried, as though he carried burdens with him into sleep. What the hell had he been reading?
Quietly Hutch eased up behind the lightly snoring physician to look over his shoulder. He had to slap a hand over his mouth to muffle a startled sound as he spotted the file's transcription document.
EMERGENCY ROOM REPORT
Patient: David M. Starsky
Patient Number: 365478932
Date of Service: 05/15/1979
Primary Treating Physician: Trevor D. Mannigan, M.D.
Consulting Surgeon: Robert C. Bachman, M.D.
He heard Starsky's voice from a week ago: "I bet even Mannigan lets some patients get to him. He might not admit it, but I don't believe all the people who come through that ER are just a blur of faces to him."
Hutch almost stumbled over his own feet backing out of the office. He'd been worried, yes, scared even, but if a read-through of Starsky's file could put that look on Mannigan's face, a look that fairly deep, exhausted sleep couldn't erase....
He fled to the locker room, abandoning the chart at the nurse's station on the way by: forget transcription; he'd do it tomorrow. He had to get away from Memorial, get home, get to Starsky, and he wished he still had a Mars light to slap on the roof of his car so he could pretend every red light with an empty cross street was a green light blushing.
Hutch had expected to find a dark house at midnight. After he'd fumbled the front door open under the flickering light over their front step, he did walk into a dark living room, but across from the couch, something else flickered. The TV screen. He blinked in the darkness until he could make out a man-sized lump on the couch. One flick of the light switch, and Starsky twitched, then rolled halfway on to his back and rose up on his elbows.
Hutch pointed at his faded pajama bottoms. "Why aren't you in bed?"
Starsky yawned, shrugging. "Couldn't sleep."
"You were sleeping on the couch."
"Wasn't sleeping. Dozing. There's a difference."
Hutch dropped his duffle and lab coat on the floor by the couch and helped himself to the space Starsky made by tucking his legs under him. "How'd it go with the police shrink?"
"You'll be shocked to hear they aren't throwin' me in a padded room."
"How much did you slip Dr. Gant under the table? Do we need to take out a second mortgage?"
"Actually, she took pity on me ‘cause I live with a smart ass doctor."
"I'm sure you told her that."
"Why not? It was good for loads of sympathy. She even told me a good joke. What's the difference between God and a trauma doctor?"
Hutch rolled his eyes. "God doesn't think he's a trauma doctor. Hah hah. The way I've always heard that joke, it's a cardiologist. Did you really tell the police department therapist we're living together on more than a roommate basis?"
"Really. Levinthal told me to see her as a resource. The PD's got a long ways to go, but some people in the right places wanna see things change for the better. Spent some time with Dobey this afternoon."
"Yeah? How's he doing?"
Starsky snickered through a yawn and spanned his hands in front of his waist, much closer to his body than he used to in mimicking the Dobey bulge. "Swear t'God, Hutch, smaller his waistline gets, bigger his sense'a humor. He and Edith went to see Top Gun while back. Shoulda heard him making fun of the pilots' call signs. Thought I might bust somethin' laughing."
Hutch felt relief wash over him. "Good to hear. Sounds like his cardiac rehab program's working out. It's been too long since I saw him last."
"He knows your time's not your own right now. What about the rest of your shift? Same old, same old?"
Hutch cradled his brow in hand. He shook his head but couldn't shake the dull ache behind his eyes, and rested his head back against the couch cushion. "Don't even get me started on computers!"
Starsky gave him a sleepy grin. "What about computers? Some computer at Memorial trying to tell you that you don't exist?"
"Oh, you're a riot. They'll ruin civilization as we know it, that's what!" Hutch swept his hand in an arc to illustrate the coming wipe-out of humankind. "We have a new computer system at Memorial. One machine at the main nurse's station, one up at Reception, and supposedly they're linked. Don't ask me how, I don't know, and I don't want to know. Hospital administration wants us to start typing in when we're with a patient, what patient, et cetera, instead of just moving our magnets on the old board, and all that data will show up on a screen at the Reception desk."
"Sounds good to me."
"Good? It's a disaster waiting to happen. What about a power failure? Those damn things don't run on batteries, you know. How much data would be lost before the generators kick in? Can you tell me that?"
"And they get viruses."
"Viruses?" Hutch stared at him. "Computers get viruses."
"Uh-huh. Good article on it in Popular Science."
"Oh, that's all we need. We won't be able to keep track of sick patients because of a sick computer. I don't know why we need a computer at Reception; the new girl on second shift is HAL's next of kin."
"You know, the computers in R&I came through for us more'n one time."
"I know," Hutch sighed. "I'm just sounding off because some pimply moron from the technology department thought it would be a good time to come teach us the ABCs of computers on a day when we were short an Attending. Dr. Jergen hurt himself playing racquetball or something, didn't make it to second shift, and might not be in tomorrow. God, it was a madhouse. Everything that could go wrong did go wrong."
"I'll live." Hutch smiled over at his sleep-tousled lover. "You're looking good over there."
Starsky grabbed him by the scruff of the neck and pulled him into a hard, wet kiss that tasted like beer and nachos, chocolate and peanuts. Hutch fed on the kiss, grinding his open mouth harder and harder against Starsky's, letting his partner tangle their tongues. With every movement of their lips, a little of the Memorial madness sloughed off him, bringing his humanity closer to the surface.
Pulling back with a theatrical gasp, Starsky licked his lips. "Man, can you french. I'll still be feeling that one at breakfast."
Hutch smirked. "I think I picked up a few tricks from a master in the art."
"Did R.C. get admitted okay?"
"Yeah. I risked the wrath of Mannigan to take a quick break and go up to Five Medical. We got lucky. Marjory Grace was the charge nurse on duty. Her heart's as big as Larry is tall, and she has a maternal instinct that won't quit. She took one look at Larry and saw a lost little boy. She'll see to it he gets to stay with R.C." The words addiction and Dilaudid and Percocet caught Hutch's attention and made him aware of the television for the first time since walking in the door. He reached for the remote on the coffee table and pumped the volume. "What are you watching, Starsky?"
"Some late-night documentary on one of the cable channels."
"Yeah? What's it called?"
"Starsky, it's too late and I'm too tired to translate mumble-mouth."
"It's called Paging Doctor Addict. Dumb title, I know."
"Oh, for God's sake."
Hutch listened with growing unease as a man in a lab coat, his face obscured and voice disguised in a mechanical mumble, blamed the pressure-cooker environment of the urban ER, inhuman hours, and poor staffing for his addiction to prescription drugs. Shuddering, Hutch clicked the off button and slapped the remote down on the coffee table.
"Hey, I was watching that!" Starsky protested.
"It deals with your field. I watch a lot of documentaries about practicing medicine."
"That's no documentary, Starsky, that's muckraking journalism meant to stir an audience of laypeople into a frenzy of alarm that every doctor they encounter in the ER is hyped up on some cocktail of drugs." He hauled himself off the couch. "I'm going to bed. I'm not on until eight, but tired as I am, that'll be here in the blink of an eye."
"Go on and watch your documentary, Starsky. I'm too exhausted to talk about anything important, and if I don't get some sleep, I'll be more dangerous to patients than that poor schmuck who pops Percocet."
Wednesday, July 16th, 1986
"Starsky, you really didn't have to come by here with me."
Hutch turned and squinted at the glare of sun glinting off the windshields of the Torino and T-Bird parked side by side in the small lot behind P.D.Q. Instant Printing. Instinct told him he was missing a good show; he swiveled to the sight of Starsky bent over to flip the green plastic doormat in search of the spare key, faded denim stretching across his ass in a way that tightened Hutch's khakis across the front. His libido could tunnel halfway to the earth's core, but one glimpse of Starsky buns in tight jeans would bring that sex drive clawing and scraping to the surface.
Starsky straightened, brushing his palm down the front of his blue safari shirt, and held up the small gold-plated open sesame. "You're pressed for time. This way, I can feed and water the kitties while you grab some stuff for Larry and hit the road to Memorial."
After a brief tussle with the lock on the rear entrance, Starsky pushed open the door and gestured Hutch in ahead of him. Feline Starsky met them at the door, the lithe black cat twining himself around his namesake's ankles, rubbing his body against Starsky's legs, his tail switching. Starsky bent to scratch him between the ears and was rewarded with throaty purrs. Hutch the mackerel tabby was nowhere to be seen.
The apartment was a study in miniature: a tiny square living room with furniture too small for the large men who used it, a closet-sized kitchen not much bigger than the one full bathroom, and two monk cell bedrooms. Some cons left prison in search of the widest open spaces they could find; others seemed to need the familiarity of tight, enclosed living for the rest of their lives.
"They keep the place neat as a pin," Starsky observed, wiping his hand across the top of the antique TV set and showing off the relative lack of dust on his palm.
The bedrooms faced each other across the two-foot wide hallway. On one door a wooden block sign hand-painted Larry hung from a peg; an identical one painted R.C. hung on the other. In each tiny room the bed was rumpled, obviously slept in.
Starsky nodded in his way of confirming a suspicion. "I always had a feeling they weren't...you know."
"Yeah. I mean, it's not just a matter of whether they even swing that way, which I doubt R.C. does, and Larry, I don't think he swings any way. He's so..." He jerked a thumb at the room behind him and the bed with its cowboy-and-pioneer-wagon bedspread.
"Childlike," Hutch said.
"Well, they might not be lovers in the sexual sense, but their bond goes a hell of a lot deeper than roommates, friends, and business partners."
"No foolin', look at that." Starsky moved into R.C.'s room, waving a hand in front of his nose and making a face at the noxious odors of sickness.
For his room, R.C. had chosen cool shades of blue, including the quilt on the double bed. Hutch marveled at first that a man R.C.'s size could sleep in a double without ending up a twisted human pretzel, but the room simply lacked the space for a queen mattress. He saw what Starsky meant the second he got closer to the rumpled, soiled bed. The imprint patterns served as snapshots to men trained in observation.
"When did they come in yesterday?" Starsky whispered at his side.
"During the morning. Ambulance transport. Larry used the TDY service to call EMS."
"Sometime during the night before," Starsky said, "Larry must'a come in here and stretched out on top of the covers beside R.C. God, Hutch. What's Larry gonna do if--"
Hutch turned and left the room.
Knowing he had less than ten minutes to pack a suitcase and get on the road if he wanted to reach Memorial with time to stop by R.C.'s room on Five Medical, he sat down on the sofa, unable to face Larry's little corner of innocence in a deadly, uncertain world. A sinuous black form dropped down from the sofa back on to his shoulder and made a leap for his lap. Hutch absently petted the purring cat. Starsky appeared in Hutch's line of sight, Hutch-the-cat in his arms.
"He was hiding under R.C.'s bed just like Larry said."
"I get it now," Hutch said, still stroking the warm, rumbling circle of fur on his lap. "What you said at the Academy last week about the downsides of us still working together. Setting aside the practicalities and what police departments won't allow in partnerships, we still wouldn't have managed it. Would we? Living together, sleeping together, working together. Trying to blend everything."
"I think it would've been hard. Real hard. Dangerous, too."
"The life we have together now...we made it possible, made it work, by going in different directions career-wise, or am I shooting in the dark here?"
"I won't say it would've been impossible the other way, Hutch, 'cause who knows? I don't have all the answers. I think somewhere along the way, maybe even before I got...before I was in the hospital so long, things started changing for us, and by the time we acted on those changes, it was more important for us to share a life than strap on holsters together. That's not a bad thing, okay? And, hey--" Starsky nudged Hutch's shin with the toe of his boot. "Stop it. You got me staying stuff now I'm supposed to save for tomorrow, and you know I'm only good for one mushy day a year."
Hutch smiled at the glimmer of light through the darkness he'd felt enveloping him. "That's a load of bull, and you know it. You don't do a bad job on Valentine's Day. You manage a few soapy phrases on my birthday. The sugar rush you get from all that Halloween candy is usually good for a romantic mumble or two. Then there's all the sentimentalism you muster around Hanukkah and Christmas. Hell, last year, I think you got mushy on Arbor Day."
Starsky's deep chuckle earned him a tentative meow out of the cat in his arms. He released Hutch-the-cat, chuckling harder when the skittish feline streaked toward R.C.'s room. "Won't do you any good, fella, I shut the door." He clapped his hands at Hutch-the-human on the couch. "Okay, wiseass, up to it! I'm on cat food duty. You throw some stuff in a suitcase for Larry and hit the road. If you're late Mannigan might get the bright idea to take away your day off tomorrow, and then I'd hafta hurt him."
Hutch nudged the halfway napping animal on his lap until "Starsky" stretched with a r-r-rowr and jumped to the floor. "What's the rest of your day look like?"
"I have a meeting with Lieutenant Cato, he's in charge of the HCT, and then I get to drive out and inspect the PD's new closed-road circuit and pick up the accident reports from Records, start doin' research for my driving course. Other'n that, nothing much shaking."
"Well, I have to shake it, or I'll never get to the ER by eight."
When Hutch crossed the threshold of Room 514 West, he got seized by a giant with wild hair. Praying his ribs held firm, he quickly pulled himself from Larry's hug-greeting, and tried to gauge whether happy Larry or frantic Larry had grabbed him. The man's bright eyes and round-cheeked grin gave Hutch hope that the universe had worked a miracle on Five Medical. Propped up in the hospital bed, R.C. gave him a smile that showed a hint of teeth and equaled a whooping hallelujah from anyone else.
"I think someone got some good news this morning," Hutch said slowly, making sure both men had a visual of his lips. Larry nodded, tugging on his lab coat lapel and patting the Dr. Hutchinson on his chest pocket. "You need something from me, Larry?" Hutch held out the suitcase. "Guess you do. I packed a few necessities. Starsky put out the dry food and canned food for the cats. He said to tell you he'd be by to see you guys--"
Larry was shaking his head, still patting the pocket, but he took the suitcase.
"Um. A doctor?"
Larry nodded and twirled in his finger in a circle.
"Oh! The doctor made his rounds this morning?" He got a nod from R.C. "Good. Let me go have a quick look at your chart." At Larry's questioning tug on his sleeve, Hutch said again, "Chart. I need to look at R.C.'s chart. At the nurse's station. I'll be right back."
Starsky let out a low whistle of appreciation for the sleek black van parked in Metro's rear lot. Van, hell! You could line up the HCT's brand-new pride and joy with a rock group's tour bus and fall short in length by only five or six inches at best. Passing by the side panel, he brushed his hand over the bottom of the BCPD shield and the words Hostage Crisis Team painted in stark white. As he neared the "passenger side" front door, he heard noise more appropriate to a band's tour bus than a hostage response vehicle. Through the open door, music blared.
The music died. "In here!" called a deep voice from the recesses of the van.
The lieutenant had the height to match the voice. Kicked back in a metal-and-plastic stacking chair, his long legs propped on the work counter, Cato had to reach six-three standing. With his trained eye for forming a composite out of a few glances, Starsky noticed the man wore Birkenstocks instead of boots under his multi-pocketed utility khakis, his BCPD t-shirt stretched taut over a broad chest and muscular arms, and a braided-hemp necklace circled his neck. His short, fine dark hair, narrow-frame glasses, and the lines around his light blue eyes and thin-lipped mouth gave him a look of authority. Starsky guessed his age at mid-forties. He had the build of a marine and dressed like a Peace Corps volunteer. This wasn't a man you could put into a neat category, or box in. He realized Cato was sizing him up at the same time, and was grateful the interior clearance allowed him to stand at his full height.
"The name's Doug or Cato. In this business, we have to concentrate on saving lives, not rank. If you're hung up on titles, you've come to the wrong place."
Starsky grinned. "What's in a title?"
Cato's thin lips stretched into a friendly smile. "Levinthal told me I could count on that attitude from you." He sat up straight and reached for the coffee pot on its burner and a dark blue ceramic mug with Cal across the front in golden cursive script.
"Berkeley?" Starsky asked when Cato handed him the steaming mug.
"My alma mater."
Starsky took a sip and promptly spewed coffee all over his hand. Cato surprised him with a loud bark of laughter. Not to be outdone, Starsky apologized to his tongue and throat in advance and took another cautious sip. God, a few cups of this and he wouldn't be able to deep-throat Hutch.
"How the hell do you make your coffee? Find spare car batteries and drain them of acid?"
Cato smirked. "You work with me, you'll learn to drink it that way and like it. Keeps a guy on his feet and all synapses firing at top speed." He gestured around the interior of the van. "Have a look before we get down to details. If you agree to sign on with this gig, you'll spend a lot of time in this vehicle."
Taking one sip of hydrochloric coffee every thirty seconds or so, Starsky eased around the spacious interior, taking stock of all the monitors, computer panels, dedicated phone equipment. "Man, this rig's come a long way since the surveillance vans of my day."
"Give it another decade and you'll think you're in a spaceship. We're only getting a foot in the door of portable electronics and computer capability. Technology a problem for you?"
"Nope. I'm into gadgets. I've had my eye on a personal computer, but I think if I brought it home right now, my partner would take a baseball bat to it."
Cato's normal laugh was softer, huskier. "Better wait until they come down in price."
Starsky pointed at a snapshot of a tall, fair-haired young man in khakis and tank top who was stood proudly over what looked like a burial mound. "Who's that?"
"My son Alex. He's in grad school. Archaeology. Wants to dig up stuff that's been buried under layers of dirt for centuries. I couldn't be happier."
"Yeah, I can feel the pride radiating from over there."
"I keep that picture there to remind me what's most important in my life. It's a visual gut check while I'm in a hostage negotiation that the people involved have loved ones counting on me and the HCT to reach a fatality-free resolution."
"You got your priorities straight, Cato."
"At forty-six, if I don't have them in order, when will I ever?" Cato cleared his throat. "If you want to keep a picture up there for your visual gut check, it's fine with me. Levinthal probably gave you a speech about safety and discretion. For the most part, he's right. Police departments still have too many meatheads walking around thinking a gay guy looks at them for more than two seconds and they'll suddenly want dick themselves. In here, you won't have to worry about that shit. In here, I'm the law of the land, and I don't want you trying to censor yourself. We can't afford that. If you come onboard, you and I will need open lines of communication. Someone's life will depend on it."
"I guess that's what Levinthal meant about having room to breathe. Thanks." Starsky grabbed the other stacking chair and turned it around to face Cato. He straddled the seat and rested his elbows on the chair back. "What I don't get is why he tapped me for this assignment. I don't have the background for it."
"When I started working with Levinthal in March to restructure the HCT, he asked me what I needed in a Negotiator-2, and I said, send me somebody with street cop experience. Someone who's had a finger on the pulse of the inner city. Eight out of ten Bay City hostage situations in the last two years took place in urban precincts. I did the bulk of my SWAT and negotiator work in Baltimore, and I'm still new here. I need someone who has first-hand knowledge of the mentality of potential hostage takers in this city, and the way potential hostages might react in a given scenario. When Levinthal brought me your jacket, I snatched it up with both hands. I know a little about your background. Nobody in law enforcement who hasn't been in a coma for the last decade is completely ignorant of your background."
Starsky smiled. "I feel a little closer to the ballpark. Not all the way in yet, but closer."
"Good, because I think if we blend your real-world experience and my training and grasp on theory, we can save some lives. My goal for the HCT? I want to shave off the time it takes us to go from response to resolution so we can get civilians out of danger before the Feds have a chance to send in a couple of junior G-men in bad suits and ties."
Starsky raised both eyebrows. "Way I heard it: you spent years with the Feebies as a profiler."
Cato had a faint flush to his cheeks that usually accompanied embarrassment. "You heard right. Listen, I still have friends over at the Bureau, and they really know their trade, but too many Feds care more about jurisdiction and protocol than they do about the human lives at stake. I don't dance too well with people like that. Never have, never will."
"Not my favorite dance partners, either," Starsky said.
"That's the read on you I got from a look through your jacket. All right, let's talk details."
Hutch rested both hands on the nurse's station counter and bowed his head, dragging in the deepest breaths he could. He needed five minutes. Five minutes somewhere dark, cool, quiet, somewhere he could close his eyes and--
The phone rang.
He looked around. No sign of a nurse, nurse's aide, or a tech. Right then he would have paid a wandering EMT ten bucks to answer the damned phone. He had perhaps three minutes to type into that godforsaken computer that he was no longer with Patient 56798045, because Patient 56798045, otherwise known as Reginald Coffey, had bled out half of his volume from a stab wound before Hutch and Mannigan could get him to Dr. Bachman for emergency surgery. Dr. Bachman was good, no doubt about it, but even he had little chance of salvaging Patient 56798045. Turning us into digits. Pretty soon everyone in the world will be a string of digits.
The phone refused to shut the hell up.
Hutch grabbed the receiver and slammed his finger down on the line one button. "Dr. Hutchinson!"
"Yikes," said Maureen. "That's Twilight Zone material. I was transferring a call to you, but I thought I'd have to go through Neena or Peter or Caroline."
"Who is it, Maureen, I really don't have time--"
"It's my teddy bear, which means you be nice to him, no matter how hard you have to grind your teeth. Believe me, there's nothing worse than landing on a receptionist's persona non grata list. Got it?"
"Just transfer the call, Maureen. I probably won't have time to be rude to Huggy even if he asks for it. I have a feeling the Four Horsemen are about to ride through the Receiving entrance dragging half a million traumas behind them."
Maureen whistled. "Geez. You need a break, Hutch. For real." He must have growled or made some other threatening noise, because she squeaked and then he heard nothing but silence for a second.
"Doctor Blondie? I had a message from you on my machine. Lay it on me, what's up, what's down?"
"Huggy, you're a hard man to reach these days."
He heard a huff of laughter. "I guess this is a convo between a pot and kettle then."
"I won't argue with that. Listen, I only have a few minutes. We're on for Monday. I had a five-second phone call with Dobey this morning, and he has a direct line to the man himself."
"All right! When should Anita and yours truly be ready?"
"Hmm. Allowing for traffic, about six? I know this is short notice."
"Don't worry yo'self on that score, brother. I have it on good au-tho-rity Anita would turn me into Bear dough in her new pizza oven if I suggested closing down the place for a few hours on a Friday or Saturday night. The invitation list you left on the machine still good?"
"Yeah. I doubt you'll get everyone on a weeknight, but I know you'll try."
"Sure will. Hutch, you sound solid. I'm talking concrete. How you really handling this?"
The last thread tying Hutch to his control broke. He had the presence of mind to moderate his voice to a chilled whisper, but he had no energy left for censorship. "I'm a doctor, Huggy. I'm a trauma fellowship candidate in an urban emergency room. How do you think?"
"Thought so. I watched you cross that valley of fear seven years ago, and I know you got to have worries on top of worries. Does he know how you feel about all this?"
"How the hell could he know? I haven't had more than a few waking minutes alone with him since he got the offer from Commissioner Levinthal. Huggy, I'm happy about the promotion aspect of the job offer. He deserves it; he earned it with years of hard work, blood, sweat, and tears. We're celebrating someone having the smarts to give Starsky a title that matches his talent. Everything else, I..."
"It's okay, I can dig it. Soon's you get a chance, you let off some steam, don't keep it in, cuz you sound primed to explode, my friend. I'll get to work on this surprise shindig for your curlier half, and I'll have some rabbit food on the menu just for you."
"Don't bother. Way I feel right now, I'd pay good money to gnaw on a few sauce-dripping rib bones, but you might want something heart-healthy for Dobey."
"Got it covered. One Huggalicious rack of ribs for the good doctor, and baked mustard-sauce, no-skin chicken wings for the good captain." Huggy's tone deepened, solemnity rarely heard from him, "Hutch, bro, don't feel bad ‘cause you got fear. You ain't alone. And I'll tell you something else for free: Starsky's got him some fears ‘bout what you do for a living. Seems to me you cats need to have an exchange of words with the doors locked, the pager turned off, and the phones unplugged."
"From your mouth to Mannigan's ears, Huggy."
"Oh, hell!" Hutch's palm itched with his intense urge to smack the computer screen. "Is there something wrong with this damn thing?"
Caroline joined him in front of the section of counter reserved for the new computer. "Looks fine to me, what's the problem?"
"It shows me on the schedule for tomorrow, seven to seven, and I'm supposed to have tomorrow off. Right now I wish this offensive box of metal, plastics, and circuit boards didn't know I exist!"
"That change in the schedule is my fault, not the computer's," said the last voice in the world Hutch wanted to hear right that second. Caroline gave him a quick back-pat of sympathy and hurried off.
Hutch counted slowly to ten before facing his supervising physician. "Trevor, I asked for Thursday off. I asked three weeks ago for that day off. It's important. Or couldn't you tell? Seeing how I hardly ever ask for a day off, and next to never that far in advance!"
"I know that, Hutch, but we're facing a critical staff shortage, and this ER depends on its trauma residents in a crisis. You were made aware of that when you applied to be a trauma candidate this year."
I knew it. I signed away the rights to my soul with that application. "Why the shortage?"
Mannigan keyed in a command and pulled up a new screen. "I found out this morning that Ronald Jergen will need emergent back surgery. That means a protracted recovery and rehabilitation. He won't be on the schedule for months. Hayden is out of town for his father-in-law's funeral and won't be back until Sunday. You know Oates's wife is due any day; he's working on a day-by-day basis right now."
"What about Carmen Moreno?"
Mannigan pointed at the green letters and numbers on the dark screen. "She's already offered me half a day tomorrow and Friday and Saturday in addition to her regular hours, and she has family in from the Dominican Republic who can only afford to visit her once a year. Now I need your help. Do you have a pressing reason why I can't count on your assistance tomorrow?"
Hutch thought about the velvet box safely tucked away in Bambi's locker, and what he had hoped would be one of the most important days in his life. He couldn't let himself imagine Starsky's disappointment or he'd wrap that stethoscope around Mannigan's neck and pull tight. "It's pressing, Trevor, believe me, it's pressing, but if you want me to tell you it trumps an underprivileged family from the Dominican Republic?" He rubbed his eyes and repeated the words trauma fellowship within his mind. "I'll be here."
If Starsky doesn't kill me.
"Glad to hear it."
Hutch glared at him, gratified that the imperturbable Mannigan's eyes widened slightly. "Well, hear this. I've blacked out three hours Monday evening after my shift is supposed to officially be over. That time slot will stay blacked out unless half of California suddenly falls into the Pacific, do you understand?"
"May I ask--"
"No, you may damn not. But it does trump an underprivileged family from the Dominican Republic - at least, to me it does. That's all you need to know."
"Dr. Hutchinson! Exam Three!"
Hutch gave his boss one more hard look and turned to dash off in response to Peter's call.
Starsky had his mouth full of rye bread, turkey, and hot mustard when the phone rang. He spun from the counter and grabbed the wall phone. "Starsmksy."
"Finally," said Hutch. "Tell me what you're eating so I can eat vicariously?"
Swallowing, Starsky tongue-cleaned his front teeth. "Turkey and mustard on rye."
"That lean turkey instead of your pastrami? Buddy, I'm proud."
"Only for you, gorgeous." What Hutch didn't know about the cheese-and-chili smothered nachos Starsky had noshed on at the Pits earlier wouldn't hurt him. A guy had to have a full stomach before picking up a certain velvet box at the jeweler's, or the butterflies would eat him from the inside out. "I've been trying to call you. Maureen said it's been wild."
"Wild is a good word for it. I've been trying to call you too. How was your meeting?"
"With Lieutenant Cato? Good, good. You'll get the full report when you got more'n five minutes to spare. You're probably using your thirty-second lunch break to make this call."
"You know it. You'll like this, though: I left the ER. I'm at a payphone across from the gift shop."
"Really?" Suspicion clouded Starsky's happiness with concern for his partner. "Something on the nasty side of wrong going on in the ER today?"
"I just...I needed a few minutes away, that's all. Listen, I have good news for you. R.C. wanted me to tell you the first chance I had. It's not cancer, Starsky. There's no sign of any mass or growth in the pancreas. The pancreatitis is a complication of a peptic ulcer."
"He's got an ulcer?"
"Yes. An ulcer's nothing to sneeze at, but it's a treatable, reversible condition. It's really the best case scenario considering his symptoms on presentation."
"That's terrific, Hutch! Man, that's a relief. Does Larry understand, I mean--"
"He knows that R.C. will get better. I think he has an idea that R.C. could've been a lot sicker than he is. Other than that, I doubt he has the capacity to know what a bullet they've dodged."
"An ulcer, huh. Has R.C. been under a lot of stress lately?"
"Well, we're learning stress isn't the only causative agent in ulcers, but it's possible. I didn't have time this morning for a serious talk with him. I'll try to stop by there tonight and see if one of the nursing assistants can take Larry to the magazine room or something, and give me a few minutes alone with R.C. Listen, can you make it to my AAPHR meeting tonight?"
"Me? Why? I've never--"
"I'm not supposed to tell you, Starsk. Nate would give me one of those heartbroken pretty boy looks and you know I hate those. Just come, please?"
"Sure, when and where?"
"Nine p.m. in the lecture hall. You know, in Memorial's office building?"
"Yeah, I'll find it. Be there, nine sharp. Promise."
Starsky had to chuckle to himself at the four doctors clustered together in two of the lecture hall's center rows: they could star on some TV medical soap, As the Caduceus Turns, or something, and they would all flatten him with scorn if he voiced that thought outside his head.
Hutch had shed his lab coat, showing off his tanned arms in the short-sleeved green scrub top that looked too good on him to be legal. Sandy-haired, green-eyed Nate Constantino had taken after both his California beach-girl mother and Italian father, but his business attire was strictly Milan. Fond of pointed-toe stilettos and sweater dresses, Bethany Morgenstern always made Starsky think of a young Cher, except that her long, straight hair was a warm highlighted brown instead of black. She often joked that her closest friends were Givenchy, Dior, and Arden. Behind the fashionable façade was a fiery human rights activist. She and Nate had co-founded Bay City's chapter of The American Association of Physicians for Human Rights, along with the internists' other partner in practice, Dr. Sammie Mason.
Ah, Sammie. Starsky smiled fondly at her. Nate and Bethany knew they turned heads, but quiet Sammie would stammer in shock if someone complimented her appearance. She wore her lab coat long over her blue skirt suit, her legs shapely in skin-tone hose down to well-worn sling-backs. Her hair fell in a dark sheen down her back, and her face could stop clocks: smooth, creamy coffee skin, tasteful shadow and liner that made big, brown eyes even bigger and browner. She didn't look a day older than when Hutch had held her in a Midway Hospital waiting area and let her cry her eyes out over Jackson Walters.
Six other doctors had settled close by, in groups of three, deep in conversation. Starsky didn't recognize any of them, but he'd likely heard their names from Hutch. He dropped in to the hard scooped-back chair beside Hutch and slid his arm around his favorite doctor's shoulders, confident that they were among friends in this organization. Hutch gave him a tired smile, but his eyes gleamed bright with happiness and welcome. Nate flashed him a grin from the other side of Hutch. "Well, now that tonight's guest of honor is here, I need to head down front and call this meeting to order."
Nate left before Starsky could form a question. He blinked at Hutch. "What the--"
"Starsky, it's good to see you. Congratulations on the much-deserved promotion."
Starsky leaned over and patted Sammie's arm. "Thank you, ma'am."
He got a swat on his hand for his trouble, Sammie laughing. "Starsky!"
He winked at her and widened his eyes at Bethany's lime green sweater dress with its pop-art polka dots. "Is that what all fashionable human rights activists are wearin' this season?"
Bethany's wide mouth made for a potent fake frown. "I'll have you know this dress was handmade by overpaid French artisans in a boutique, not stitched together by sweatshop laborers." She glanced at her watch. "Come on, Nate, get this party started."
"What's the rush, Beth?" Hutch asked.
"Adam's home with the boys. I told him not to try anything more complicated than milk and cookies, and not to burn down our house."
Starsky laughed out loud, earning a few quizzical glances from the other doctors three rows over. "Ah, Beth, he's a dead languages professor. He doesn't know how to handle the twentieth century."
"Only too true. I love the man, I do, honest t'God, but it makes you wonder how I ended up with twin sons, and no, they don't look like the postman."
"How's Mama?" Starsky asked Sammie. "With Junior stationed overseas, she must get lonely."
Her lips pursed in her expression of concern. "The ladies from her church are in and out. I have to remind them sometimes that an elderly woman in end-stage renal failure needs to rest occasionally."
Hutch squeezed her arm in solidarity. "It's hard to imagine Mama Walters in end-stage anything."
Hand clapping silenced their conversation. Down front, Nate had taken an informal seat on the edge of the stage. "Before we get to the formal stuff, minutes and whatnot, I'd like to start this meeting off on a positive note. Tonight this chapter of AAPHR is inducting our first honorary non-clinician member in recognition of his charitable efforts on behalf of marginalized communities and their health and well-being. In addition to co-creating the Chicken Soup for Shut-Ins program, David Starsky and his partner, Dr. Hutchinson, began the Needle Knowledge awareness campaign among local tattoo and piercing studios, and Starsky has distributed Safe is Sexy pamphlets in at-risk communities that receive very little attention. I have it on good authority that he's soon to be Lieutenant Starsky. David, come down and let me give you a little token of our appreciation."
Starsky swung around to stare, slack-jawed, at Hutch, who gave him a real smile, fatigue on the back burner. Sammie was offering him silent applause, her elegant hands barely touching, and Bethany pumped her fist in the air. Starsky rose, Hutch with him, and on the way down the aisle between rows, he heard Hutch's distinctive whistle of camaraderie and approval.
Nate clapped him on the shoulder and handed over a nicely framed certificate of membership with a gesture of "speech, speech" that made Starsky flush and scratch at his eyebrow. He aimed a smile at the gathering of physicians and tried not to feel out of his league.
"Uh. Okay, I gotta say I wasn't expecting this. Yeah, Hutch and me, we enjoy teaming up, and if it's for a good cause, hey, all the better. Truth is, spending time with him over big pots of homemade soup is almost a date." At the ripple of laughter, Starsky relaxed. "As for the Needle Knowledge thing, we got to know some talented tattoo and piercing artists in the inner city on our beat. Terrific people, and they gave us their time and full attention on this. I need to give credit where it's due on the pamphlets. A friend of ours, Paco Ortega, helped me reach a few areas of the city where I wouldn't've had a shot on my own. Paco tells me it's not ‘cause I'm a gringo, it's ‘cause I can't roll my Rs."
Beside him, Nate snickered. Hutch called out, "Hey, Starsk! Esta R-R-Ramon aqui?"
Starsky waved his framed certificate. "Yeah, yeah, Doctor Bilingual. I speak some French, some Vietnamese, some Thai. Add ‘em all up, I guess it makes me bilingual-and-a-half, so there." He clasped the frame in both hands. "In all seriousness, this is a big honor. Thanks. Really." He nodded at Nate and hurried back up the aisle through the applause. Hutch planted a quick kiss on his temple when he sat back down. "You have something to do with this?" Starsky whispered.
"Nope. I didn't know until afternoon. Welcome to the group, partner."
Starsky sat there in a daze. Nate and the rest of the group discussed some problem in medical records, privacy issues in employee health testing, and a few other topics that Starsky zoned out on, just happy to sit next to Hutch's warmth, Hutch's arm around his shoulders this time, and feel a sense of belonging. Eventually he heard a change in Hutch's breathing and a side glance had him swallowing down laughter mixed with worry: Hutch's head had fallen forward and like an old man in an armchair he was snoozing.
Bethany glanced back at them and raised her eyebrows. "When he gets back to the ER, he needs about three cups of Bambi's coffee. That wake-up juice could raise the dead."
Nate wrapped up the meeting a few minutes later, and physicians began leaving one by one. Sammie patted Hutch's head gently so not to wake him and waved a smiling farewell at Starsky on her way out with Bethany. The last to leave, Nate joined them but didn't sit. "If you don't want to wake him right now, it's fine. The third shift custodial staff will lock the room at eleven."
"Yeah, I doubt he's got another hour or so without Mannigan sending out a search party, but maybe he can grab a few more Zs. Look, thanks for the honorary membership, Nate, it means a lot."
"You earned it. Just, do me a favor? Take care of yourself when you go back behind that Blue Wall?"
"You got it."
Nate shook his hand and then left them in peace in a room with good acoustics, the silence broken only by Hutch's occasional snore. Starsky watched ten revolutions of the wall clock's minute hand before Hutch jerked to sudden wakefulness beside him.
"Wha--! Starsky, what--?"
"Shh, it's okay. You caught a nap, that's all."
Hutch hand-scrubbed his face. "I have to get back to the ER."
"Nah, sit here for a sec, get your bearings. What went down at the ER? I could see how tense you were when I showed up tonight but didn't wanna ask you about it in front of Sammie and Beth."
"I made three mistakes this evening. Big ones. I caught them before damage was done, but--"
"Wait a sec. Big to most second-year residents, or just big to a guy like you, who'd eat his heart out over a misdiagnosed hangnail?"
"Big pretty much across the board, lover."
"How bad would the damage have been, if you hadn't caught the mistakes?"
"Well, in two of the cases, I just put the patient through an unnecessary diagnostic test, which might hit them in the wallet later, or the insurance company's. Not the end of the world. But in the third, in the third case..." Hutch gripped the chair's armrest. "If I hadn't made a last-minute change to the orders, it could've been a potentially fatal drug interaction."
Starsky massaged the nape of Hutch's neck. "I know that had to hit you like an anvil, but all doctors make mistakes some time or other? Right? Even doctors who've been doctors forever make mistakes."
"Yes, and patients die as a result sometimes, Starsky! Not tonight, but it was a damned close call. Then what? What am I supposed to tell Mr. and Mrs. Grieving Parent? 'Sorry, your son or daughter is dead because, well, all doctors make mistakes'? I could've killed that patient tonight."
"I hear ya, I got it, and it's lousy, and nothing I say will change it, but what good's it, tearing yourself up now about it, huh? Or have you forgotten how you tore into me about taking guilt trips too far when I pulled the trigger and left someone temporarily blind?"
"The difference is, Starsky, you didn't make a mistake that time. You followed protocol, your training, you made the right move, but an unfortunate accident occurred. This, this was all me. My fault. My carelessness. I was just so...so damned tired! It's no excuse--"
"No, but it's a legitimate complaint. You're only human; you're bound to get tired. Dangerously tired. They need to do something about how they work you guys in ERs."
"It's not just that." Hutch sighed through a yawn. "You and I didn't always make the right call in police work, but at least we could work together to pull our asses out of whatever mess we'd gotten into. I go in that ER, and every mistake I make is mine. Mine alone. It's...exhausting sometimes."
"Hey, easy," Starsky said softly. "I can't help you with the doctoring, partner, but every time you go through the doors'a that ER, I'm with you, you know, in here." He rubbed Hutch's chest over the heart.
Hutch clasped Starsky's hand and held it. "I know. I'm not downplaying how important that is."
"Meanwhile, you're sleeping in tomorrow, Dr. Hutchinson; we can both sleep in. Together."
"I won't be sleeping in," Hutch muttered.
"Run that by me again?"
"I won't be sleeping in. I'm on call tonight and then officially on shift at seven in the morning."
Starsky tensed from head to toe. "Hutch? If that's your idea of a joke, buddy boy, I might hafta do something unbecoming of a soon-to-be reinstated officer of the law, and kick your ass."
"It's not a joke, Starsky, I wish it was, ass-kicking and all."
"Goddamn it! How long you known about this?" Starsky asked tightly, very tightly.
"Not until today when I was trying to punch something into that piece-of-shit computer and saw where Mannigan had changed the schedule."
"Before you called me at lunch?" At Hutch's nod, Starsky shot to his feet and stormed out to pace in the aisle. "I knew it! I could hear something in your voice. You couldn't let me in on it? You know, me, the other guy with a vested interest in how tomorrow plays out?"
"I didn't want to break that kind of news over the phone, Starsky."
"'Cause it sounds so much better in person? Why, Hutch? Why does Mannigan think he can pull your strings whenever he wants? Did you even try to get out of it?"
"What the hell kind of question is that?" Hutch yelled.
"What you mean, what kinda question? It's a question I got a right to ask, don't I?"
Hutch tucked his arm behind him, pointing at his back. "See this? It's still there. My backbone. Of course, I tried to get out of it! I got reminded that Memorial depends on its trauma fellowship candidates in a crisis, and I had to listen to how selfless Carmen Moreno's being in spite of having family in town from the Dominican Republic."
"Good for her. She wants a masochist's medal, that's her business. What you gotta do to get a day off from that place? Put in a request form signed by God ten years in advance?"
"Mannigan's not doing this for kicks. Jergen's out with back surgery. Hayden had to take leave because his father-in-law died. He won't be back until Sunday. If he hadn't already gone out of town for the funeral before this staffing crisis hit, I bet Mannigan would have talked him out of leaving. Oates might be out any day now. His wife's hovering right over her due date and it's likely to be a high-risk labor. Unless one of us is minutes away from giving birth, Starsky, I don't have anything to bargain with."
"Give birth? Yeah, I'll give birth. If I don't get some time with you in the next twenty-four hours, I'm gonna give birth to the biggest shit fit on record, and it's all gonna land on Mannigan's head! What about the guy who won last year's trauma fellowship? Ain't he doing his trauma residency this year? What you'll be doing next year when you get the fellowship?"
"I love your certainty that I'll get it. Dr. Fischer's baby girl was diagnosed with a brain defect. He's with her and his wife at the children's hospital in New York that specializes in the condition while the poor kid undergoes back-to-back surgeries. Even if all goes well he won't be back until August."
"I'm sorry about his little girl. That's, God, that's rough. Kinda rough I can hardly imagine." Starsky hadn't loosened his tensed, battle-ready stance. "But you got a life outside that place too, Hutch! Damn it, we needed tomorrow. We've had a lotta changes, big stuff hitting us recently. If you think I don't know you still got what to say about my reinstatement, and it's building up inside you, ready to explode, you don't know shit. 'Sides that, tomorrow was supposed to be--"
"Special. I know. What do you want me to say? On Monday you said you didn't want Mannigan climbing my ass because of you, and that was on a regular day. What do you think would've happened if I'd told him I couldn't help out during a major staffing shortage because I need to celebrate an anniversary that over half of mainstream society wouldn't even recognize as valid in the first place?"
Starsky felt his entire face lock down and he held out his hand in a stop right there gesture.
"Just don't," Starsky said, voice low and cold, and kept his hand out. "I know you want me to keep my cool, and if I'm gonna do that, I gotta pretend hard, really hard, you didn't say what you said."
"Hey, wait a minute!" Hutch scrambled out to the aisle, grabbing Starsky by the arm. "You're pissed off, but clean out your ears. I didn't say I don't recognize it. You teased me last week about remembering the exact day. You're right. A lot of men wouldn't give a shit about an anniversary with their so-called legal partners, except they know if they don't, they might not get laid for a week. Why do you think I remember it without any problem, when I hardly remember my own birthday every year until you remind me? It's because that day, July 17th, means more to me than any major holiday on the damn calendar, that's why!"
The hard line of anger in Starsky's lips eased. He pulled free of Hutch's grasp and cupped Hutch's cheek.
"Like you said yesterday, we've got some shit to work through, but I wanted tomorrow to be about more than that. I wanted--" Hutch's mouth gaped open in another yawn. "We'll have Saturday; we'll just have to pretend the seventeenth is back for an encore."
"Saturday?" Starsky dropped his hand from Hutch's cheek and took a step back. "What happened to tomorrow night?"
"As of this evening, we're short an intern, too. The new guy, fresh out of med school. He cracked under the pressure. Quit, walked off the job. I think he might have been keeping some instability under wraps while he was in school, and it's much harder to hide something like that in a real-world environment like a busy ER. As it stands now, I'll have to pull an on-call shift tomorrow night, then day shift on Friday, so I'll just bunk down in the on-call room."
"Meaning I won't see you until, when, late Friday night?"
"Something like that, yeah. Starsky, I'm--I know you're disappointed, I am too, and mad as hell, and worn out. But there's nothing I can do about it, and--What are you--? Where you going?"
"I'm gonna--" Fists balled, Starsky had started for the lecture hall doors. "No, I'm not." He looked up at their ceiling, then over at Hutch. "Mannigan needs to be glad I care about your career, and that fellowship. Otherwise, I'd march over to that ER right now and tell that pathetic robot-with-eyebrows where he can put his computer, and his schedules, and this whole taskmaster routine'a his! Hear me!"
"Starsky, I hear you. They probably heard you down at Metro. Right now, I'm too tired to care if you go get your old Louisville Slugger and take batting practice on Trevor Mannigan's Id. And I don't like the idea of you driving home this angry."
"Angry? Nah. I might cool down to angry by mornin'. I'm fucking furious right this second."
"Yeah." Starsky went over to retrieve his forgotten AAPHR certificate.
"Me too." Hutch closed his eyes. "Let's go by the cafeteria. I need a pot of coffee, you can probably snag some chocolate cake, and maybe after that you'll simmer down to enraged."
The object of so much anger met Hutch at the ER's staff entrance. Mannigan was dragging, worse than Hutch had ever seen, and the sight cooled some of his rage...until Mannigan quirked his left eyebrow and said, "A word, Hutch?"
Oh, no. "Can it wait? I need to check on--"
"Now." Mannigan guided him hand on shoulder across the hall into an empty exam room.
The blue-tiled walls, empty exam table, and stainless steel glassed-in equipment cabinet were starker without the bustle and noise of patient treatment. Thunder would reverberate in this emptiness, but for once Hutch intended to bring the storm down on Mannigan if he said one word about--
"You've made too many mistakes this evening," Mannigan began in his low authoritative tone.
"Okay, that's it!" Hutch brushed through his hair and held up a warning hand. "Enough! If you're about to lecture me again on outside distractions, you can just save it. I've been absent times when Starsky needed me, kept him waiting, put him off. You tell me it's an acquired control, and I'm doing my best to acquire it, but if you're waiting for me to stop caring about him, if you're expecting me to bury him so far down a list of priorities that I can turn my emotions on and off like a light switch, it's not going to happen. I'm not you, Mannigan."
"You don't know anything about me," Mannigan snapped.
"You eat, sleep, and breathe the practice of medicine, and you expect the same from me. Well, guess what? Those mistakes this evening had nothing to do with Starsky and everything to do with me being too tired to walk a straight line. And if you want to rip me a new one for stopping by and checking in on R.C. Turner on Five Medical, for, for following up on a patient outside the ER and not having the right amount of detachment, then go right ahead. I'm a doctor because I'm dedicated to helping people, Trevor. I'm sure as hell not in it for the money or I wouldn't have taken a perfectly acceptable Biology degree from an excellent pre-medical program at the University of Minnesota to the Police Academy here with the intent of spending years patrolling inner city streets."
"Are you done, Doctor?"
"No, I'm not! Fire me if you want, but I don't think you're qualified to lecture me on emotional attachment, and you know what? You're a hypocrite. I know for a fact that some patients stick with you long after they leave this place. Well, you can read Starsky's file all you want. I lived it."
Mannigan's face underwent remarkable change, the authoritarian mask crumbling to a vulnerability that prompted Hutch to extend his hand to clasp the man's shoulder. Mannigan turned his back, and his strong shoulders had a fine tremor in them; he moved a few feet away, gripping the exam bed's rail and leaning his weight on it. "You're not the only one who's been down that road, Dr. Hutchinson! Her name was...is Laney Patrick. She was just six short weeks from being Laney Mannigan. If you're wondering why I'm using both the past and present tense, let me say this: there are some things worse than death. Do you want to know why I hound you about detachment? It's because for years after...Laney...I kept treating patients as if they were her and I could do for them what I couldn't for... It will kill you, if you don't find the necessary detachment. If I hadn't found it, I wouldn't be here today."
"I brought you in here to tell you I noticed mistakes that were a sure sign of excessive fatigue. I want you to lock yourself in the on-call room for at least four hours and sleep." Mannigan turned to walk right past Hutch, shoving his way through the swinging door.
Thursday, July 17th, 1986
Starsky stepped out into one hell of a beautiful morning. He was freshly showered, comfortable in cutoff khakis and the A-Team t-shirt that always sent Hutch's eyebrows shooting toward his hairline, and if he couldn't have Hutch here on their special day, he planned to get a hell of a lot done. He had a driving course to design, an office to pack up. Before he had to play grown-up, though, he owed himself a treat. Any excuse, really, to spend time with his tool bench and oil rag. He backed the Torino out of the garage and in to the fresh summer sunshine for some overdue maintenance. Hutch had mentioned hearing a knock the last time he'd ridden shotgun. Starsky hadn't heard it, but then Hutch had heard the sputter first, the warning sign for carburetor trouble, and a knock could be oil pressure going wonky in a car the Torino's age. Best to check it out, and if Hutch was right, well, he might tell him. Might.
"Should be home right now, convincing Starsky to stick it out with me another forty, fifty years. Three weeks of planning, down the damn tubes--"
"What's wrong, Droopy?" Joining him at the nurse's station counter, Caroline nudged his shoulder.
Oh, crap. How much had she overheard? "Things are so slow today. I've had a possible appendicitis that turned out to be painful ovulation, a flea infestation--I kid you not--and several other non-events. I feel cheated out of my time."
Caroline seized the chart in front of him and whacked his arm with it. "You emergency physicians are all the same. Most of us are only too happy for days like these, but you adrenaline-junkies crave disaster."
Hutch re-captured his chart and dug in his coat pocket for a pen. "I don't crave disaster. I was happy to discharge both the ovulation and flea case and send them home. I just prefer a challenge." He used the counter as a desk and began filling in a patient's discharge form. "Something new, interesting."
"It's that street cop complex. You're used to being a hero, and flea infestations just don't do it for you. You want something interesting? I just brought a mother and daughter in from Reception. It's a non-trauma, but maybe you can spare a few minutes from your busy schedule?"
Wrinkling his nose at her teasing sarcasm, Hutch signed the form and slipped it in the appropriate file for Maureen. "All right, I'm game. What's the score?"
"Underprivileged family. Dad's a truck driver and out of town most of the time, including today; Mom is hearing impaired. The eleven-year-old girl is in pain from a weeping rash. Medical history non-existent. After required immunizations, the child hasn't been under a doctor's care a day in her life."
Hutch rubbed his hands together. "Move my magnet, and let's go."
"You're forgetting the new policy? Computer entry, not just magnet moving?"
"Admin can shove that policy up their collective rectum if they think I'll take time away from patient care, especially when it's a child in pain, to do data entry!"
Caroline smiled. "Galahad to the rescue." She slid the Hutchinson magnet to the With Patient column on the metallic board above the water cooler and led the way. "I put her in pediatric exam, but she's not the type to be impressed by multicolored teddy bears stenciled on the walls."
Hutch smiled. "Well, we'll have to see what impresses her and dig that up somewhere."
The pediatric exam room's décor was a nice gesture, but Hutch thought the happily dancing bears of various primary colors too reminiscent of Deadhead art. The girl twisting and writhing on the exam bed certainly wasn't soothed by it. Her mother, a petite and attractive woman in a simple "housedress" of the type Edith Dobey sometimes wore, stood at the bedside and signed frantically with her hands.
"She's asking her daughter to lie still before she hurts herself," Caroline explained.
"Oh, that's right. You know sign language."
"Yeah, my mother-in-law is hearing impaired."
Hutch gave her shoulder an approving pat. "I owe you a gourmet coffee." He walked over to the bedside and, through Caroline as translator, introduced himself to the mother. His attention focused immediately afterward on the girl. "Hi, I'm Hutch, your doctor. What's your name?"
The little girl peered at him with watering eyes. "Tawana Louis."
"Nice to meet you, Tawana, but I can tell this Thursday hasn't been fun for you, and it's against the law for Thursdays to be icky for anyone under the age of eighteen."
She gulped through tears. "Is not."
He smiled. "You might not be scared of the Thursday Police, but I am, so would you mind if I look at this rash that's hurting you?"
Tawana stuck out both arms, and the barely sleeved hospital gown concealed none of her malady. Without medical intervention, she would be scarred for life. Hutch had to control the instinct to flinch from the pattern of raw wounds in raised patches of dry skin. He signaled for Caroline to toss him a pair of non-powdered gloves and, snagging them in mid-air, slipped them on while Tawana giggled at his antics. He touched her arm carefully, pressing the skin directly around each open wound and feeling the pain in his own chest when her laughter switched to a low whine.
"On my legs, too," Tawana sniffled. "Hurts. Mom made me wear jeans, ‘cuz the sores make me ugly. She didn't want people on the bus staring at me. I didn't wanna wear ‘em ‘cuz they hurt."
Hutch's jaw tightened as he breathed deeply until he could offer the mother understanding rather than frustration. There are two sides to every story, and a child in pain can't be expected to see more than one. First he had to restore the girl's faith in her caregiver and educate the caregiver at the same time.
He motioned for Caroline to translate his words in sign and lowered Tawana's arm gently to her side. "I know the jeans hurt, Tawana, but they also protected you. It's good that your sores didn't touch the bus seat, but your mother wouldn't have wanted you to be scared about nasty germs."
"Mom doesn't think I'm ugly?"
Hutch eyed Mrs. Louis and shook his head. "I'm sure your mom doesn't think you're ugly. She thinks your sores are ugly because they hurt you. Next time you have to go out while your sores are like this, you should wear soft, loose cotton pants."
Mrs. Louis nodded at Caroline's translation, reaching out hug her daughter's shoulders and kiss her intricately braided hair. With Caroline's help, Hutch established a basic history of the complaint from the mother that confirmed his diagnosis.
"Tawana, Caroline's going to bathe your legs and arms with special liquid. She'll put lotion on those sores and wrap them, and we'll give you medicine to swallow that will make you feel better. How do you feel about all that?"
Tawana frowned. "It's gonna hurt."
Hutch cupped the back of her head and squeezed her shoulder. "It won't feel good at first, but you'll feel much better afterward. Can you trust me on that?" She snuffled, and her large brown eyes begged him to make everything right again, but she pushed her chin forward and nodded bravely.
"All right. What can I bring you that will be fun for you to do while those sores soak?"
Tawana smiled. "I like to draw."
"Oh, really? An aspiring artist? I should've known. I doubt your arms will cooperate with drawing this morning, but let's compromise. What do you like to draw?"
"Clothes. Dresses and stuff. Mom doesn't have dress-up clothes, but I draw things I think would look good on her, and she says one day they'll magically appear in her closet."
Caroline disguised a dab at her eyes by brushing hair back from her face. Hutch had to swallow a lump in his throat. "Tawana, I believe in your magic. Why don't I bring you some magazines from the waiting area? You can get ideas for when you're able to draw again."
Smiling brightly, Tawana showed off a dimple in her right cheek. "Okay."
Hutch gestured for Caroline to follow him into the hall. He closed the door behind her. "That's a nasty case of infected eczema. No wonder her mother's had no success treating flare-ups with Vaseline. You can't just oil the skin down; you have to find the trigger. All right. Bathe her in Aquanil, and let's do a Cyclocort wrap. After that, start her on 250 mg Keflex, and we'll see if Tylenol won't ease the pain before we try something stronger."
"Right. If she's been having flare-ups for two years, how has she managed to avoid infection before?"
"Luck, miracle, take your pick. She needs to be in a dermatologist's care. I'll have a look at our referral chart and see who's the closest or most accessible by public transit. I'll be back in a few minutes with a pamphlet on eczema for her mother and some magazines. Thanks for the help in there with the sign language, Caroline."
Caroline laughed and waved a dismissing hand. "Seeing Galahad in action is worth the price of admission."
"Will you stop that?" Hutch cursed his skin's hair-trigger flush mechanism that made him the preferred target for teasing. He tried to turn in a dignified, all-business attitude, but his shoelaces had other ideas, and he stumbled up against the wall.
"My four-year old walks better than that," Caroline observed. "But then she doesn't have shining armor to trip over." Hutch righted himself and stabbed his warning finger at her. Caroline grinned. "Right. I'll see to the patient now."
Hutch had lived down his embarrassment by the time he located the dermatological brochures Memorial received courtesy of drug companies. He stacked several on the counter and began an expedition in search of lotion samples he could send home with the Louis family. Samples found, magazines gathered, dermatologist selected from the referral chart, Hutch reflected that a slow day had its merits, allowing him to concentrate on one patient and provide assistance he normally had to delegate to nursing assistants and techs. Halfway to Tawana's exam room, he heard the intercom's glitch squeal.
"Dr. Hutchinson STAT to Exam Four!" Bambi. Sounding the nearest she ever did to panic. Dumping his armful of lotion samples and reading material on a nearby cart, Hutch took off in that run-stride he'd perfected for emergencies too time-sensitive for a brisk walk.
"Thirteen-month-old male with sickle cell anemia," Bambi said when he entered the room. "Lethargic. Color's off. Skin cool, clammy to touch."
"Vitals?" Hutch asked, steeling himself to face the tiny boy on the exam bed. He wished he could transpose a few of the numbers Bambi rattled off to him. "Hypotensive."
Sickle cell. Thirteen-months old. Lethargy, pallor, clammy skin, low blood pressure.
Possible acute sequestration crisis.
Damn it, Hutchinson, you had to ask for a challenge!
"He's in hypovolemic shock. Let's get him on oxygen and get some fluid in him."
The intercom squealed again.
"Dr. Hutchinson to Pediatric Exam!"
Caroline this time. Hutch couldn't guess what an eczema patient could throw at her to put that kind of alarm in her voice. Wait. Keflex. Oh, shit. Anaphylaxis! He barked orders at Bambi and backtracked in a hurry to the corridor he'd just left.
Starsky plunked his stapler down in the cardboard box full of his personal belongings, its clank against his coffee mug pen holder loud in the empty office. He looked around. This was it, the last time he would stand in this office, behind this desk. He felt another pang as he thought of his cadets, the full-timers within days of graduation, the part-timers just halfway to the finish line. No. It was time to move on; he'd done what he could here. Like Hutch, he had to be where he could do the most good, and Levinthal and Cato were giving him the chance to make a real difference again.
"You did a lot of a good here, Sarge. Place won't be the same without you." Clifton could practically fill a doorway, but he managed to squeeze his burly physique into one of the cube chairs in front of Starsky's desk. "I knew when you first came to work here you weren't done with active-duty law enforcement, but you needed to be here for a while, and God knows we needed you here."
It hit Starsky then: his time at the Academy had served as preparation for much of what Levinthal expected of him. He couldn't have gotten better training for mentoring rookie detectives or facing review board cases than teaching, coaching, advocating for cadets. And knowing when to play the heavy and tell an unsuitable cadet to walk, as he'd done with Myers, well, that was a final exam. He couldn't have gone straight from street cop to the duties he was taking on now any more than Hutch could have walked right off the street into the ER treatment rooms as a doctor.
"All this time," Starsky said. "It wasn't just a job, after all."
Clifton didn't ask him to explain. "Here's something for you to take with you besides that box full of memories. If Richards thinks he's seen the last of your style of instruction, he's kidding himself. Jim Gibson's been learning from you since the day he got here, and he'll outlast Richards. Hell, I see him sitting behind the commandant's desk one day."
"Not you?" Starsky smiled.
Clifton shrugged. "Wouldn't want all the paperwork."
Starsky nodded. "Nah, me neither. Jim'd be good, though."
Clifton's smile of agreement dimmed. "I got a call this morning. Keith Leitner. He tried your office number first, then mine."
"Damn. I'm guessin' it wasn't good news."
"No. His old man died down there in Costa Lucia. Official word is that he had a stroke out in the middle of nowhere, no emergency medical care."
"Shit. Christ, I'd hoped this was one time life would do the unexpected and play nice. I'll give Keith a call soon as I get home. Does Cadet Holm know? Those two got pretty tight as class partners."
"Judging by her red-rimmed eyes in PT this morning, I'd say, yeah, she knows. She'll probably head down to Los Alamitos when class lets out today. It'll be hard for you, won't it, not being able to look out for these cadets. You really care about these kids. Always did."
"Yeah." Starsky grimaced. "It's just now sinking in, how much I'll miss that. Keep me in the loop, wouldya? Lemme know how things turn out the rest of this session?"
Clifton nodded. "Jim and I have no intention of letting you turn into a stranger. Count on that."
"I will, thanks."
"You look happier. How's it going with your other little one? The wee boy with sickle cell?"
Relaxing in the lounge, Hutch glanced up at Caroline who leaned against the doorjamb. "He's in ICU. I think we got him out of shock before it had a chance to leave him with brain deficit or renal damage. It'll be up to the intensivists to deal with the entrapment of red blood cells around his liver and spleen, poor little guy."
"Thank goodness you resolved the shock, at least. And Tawana?"
Hutch draped an arm along the worn sofa's back and stretched his long legs out in front of him, crossing his ankles. "Tawana is being given a private room since they have low census on Peds right now. I'm waiting for the on-call pediatrician to get back in touch with me. Maybe she'll have ideas on how to stabilize this eczema until we can have Tawana seen by a specialist."
Caroline laughed. "I can't call you Droopy anymore. You're all charged up."
"I got into this line of work to take tough cases and try to make a difference. With a few exceptions, I think best and fastest when I'm slammed against the wall or under pressure. I was a better cop at crunch time, too; it's what made me think trauma specialty might be the right way to go. I can't stand just showing up and punching a clock--" He fell silent.
"I'm an idiot!" Already in a world of his own, Hutch lunged toward the room's larger table. He groped for the phone. "I get it now. Oh boy, do I ever get it now."
"Put down that phone!" ordered Bambi from the lounge doorway. She motioned Caroline out of the room. "Now sit down on that couch," she told Hutch.
Hutch backed over to the couch and dropped down. Bambi's curls were quivering dangerously, bursting loose from her customary barrette, and she was flushed scarlet, sweating, looking ready to chew nails and spit them out as bullets at machine-gun speed. "I haven't been this mad since the time that drunk patient told me I look like Raggedy-Ann's grandma, but if I lost about forty pounds, I'd be a fine piece of woman flesh."
Uh-oh. Hutch decided he could shoot past her, knock over one of the lounge tables and barricade himself behind it until her killer hot flash passed.
"Okay," she said. Hutch heard her draw in a deep breath. "A certain brown-haired, brown-eyed little bird has been whispering in my ear."
Damn it, Caroline had overheard him griping.
"Now, was today a very special one for you and Starsky? And if I think you're telling me what Mannigan wants to hear, I will beat you over the head with a bedpan."
He believed her. "Yes. Very special."
"And you asked for this day off three weeks ago?"
"Mannigan changed the schedule without consulting you and gave you less than twenty-four hours notice of the change?"
"Uh, that's right."
"Well, then. There's only one thing to be done." Bambi grabbed the phone, drew it over to the edge of the table, and punched in a number so viciously that the poor phone would have yelped had it been sentient.
She silenced him with a raised eyebrow worthy of Mannigan himself. "Wes? What? Oh, for heaven's sake. I know I'm the only person you gave this number, and I know why. You're a horndog. Well, I think you need to know your little secret isn't really a secret. You're fifty-three and sleeping with a thirty-year-old lingerie model named Chrysanthemum. I'm sure she's a very nice girl, too. Big deal. Be glad you're a man. I'm your age, and if I started dating Peter, who's twenty-eight, half the staff of this hospital would suddenly be questioning my competency as a nurse." She tapped her foot, free hand on her hip. "You remember when I found you that rare Duke Kahanamoku postcard at that swap-meet, and you told me if I ever needed a favor, it was yours, no questions asked? I'm calling in that favor. I need you to come in now, not eleven tonight. Eh-eh. No questions. You know it has to be important. That swap-meet was three years ago, and I'm just now calling in my marker. Okay, fine. This whole week Hutch has been pulling nearly the same hours as Trevor. He requested today off weeks ago and had it yanked out from under him, and I think it was a special day of some kind. Good enough? Good. Okay, when you get here, tell Mannigan something about the surf not being good; don't let on that you're coming in to relieve Hutch. Of course, he'll buy it, Wes: Trevor wouldn't know good surf if it rolled into this ER and knocked him flat on his butt. I'll see you in an hour." She slammed down the phone.
"Here's what you're going to do. You're going back out there. Do your charting, look in on patients, carry on per normal. When Wes shows up and Mannigan has a chance to notice him, I'll pull him--Trevor--aside and insist that he send you home."
"Oh, he will. I have on my lightest white cotton shirt, my most comfortable nurse slacks, the ones that breathe, and I'm still frying all over. I need to take fifty Premarin pills, crush them up, slap them in a blender with milk, bananas, and three jiggers of rum, and park my menopausal backside naked on a glacier to drink my hormone-replacement daiquiri. Do you think Mannigan wants to cross me right now?" She began flapping her hands in front of her face to generate a breeze. "Trevor's a giant in his field and a prince among men, but an administrator he's not. I'll remind him there is such a thing as an employee grievance, and you would be well within your rights to file one."
"No, you wouldn't. You're a former cop used to coming in whenever your captain calls, no matter what, and Mannigan will take advantage of that without even realizing it. Hayden would've filed a complaint. Goodness, even sweet little Carmen Moreno would have. But then Trevor wouldn't push them to be here every second of every day."
"Oh, that's just great. They're trauma candidates, too. What did I do to become the chosen one?"
Bambi didn't look impressed with Hutch's sarcasm. "You are, more than you know. Don't you get it yet? He's grooming you, Hutch, that's why he tyrannizes you. In this ER, he's practically God, not that he'd ever see himself that way, and he's fashioning you in his image. The trauma fellowship is only part of it."
Hutch was suddenly finding it hard to breathe. "Do you mean--?"
"Do I mean I think he sees the potential in you to take his place in fifteen or so years? Yes."
Bambi smirked. "Metaphorically, anyway."
Starsky sprawled on the living room floor, BCPD officer vehicle accident reports strewn around him. They didn't make for easy reading, but this copy of a government report on middle-age driver safety issues verged on ridiculous. He squinted at the fine print. Obviously, no one at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration had less than twenty-twenty vision. Starsky had never minded doing research for a good cause, but he'd be damned if he went out and bought a pair of drugstore reading glasses just to get through twenty-odd pages of government blah-blah.
What the--? He hadn't even heard the front door open. Starsky rushed to the foyer, unable to believe his ears or eyes. "How did you manage--" The fourth word emerged on a whuff of breath: Starsky found his arms full of Hutch. He held his armful close. Back in jeans and pullover, but sweaty and rumpled, Hutch clung to him. Love this shirt because it's easy to slide my hands under it and up your chest...squeeze me...tighter... don't tease...open those lips...stop with the pecking and let me in...that's it...fill you up...wait a minute, losing control of this... Hutch....
"Don't topple over," a soft voice warned, and Starsky realized he swayed to inaudible music. "Only you would turn a kiss into your own private disco."
"Not disco," Starsky argued, still dazed. "You kiss like Mozart. Not Mozart the person, but, hey that gives new meaning to Rock Me Amadeus." His smile felt sappy on his lips, but he couldn't rein it in. Then he noticed Hutch's jitteriness. "You're a little twitchy. What's wrong?"
"Starsky, I've been stuck inside that ER for so long I'm about to take a page out of your book on claustrophobia. Why don't we go somewhere with no walls?"
"Somewhere with sky, trees, and water? Yeah, we can do that."
Starsky took him to the park. Neither of them in the mood for a fancy dinner in a restaurant, they stopped by Sol's hotdog cart for two of his best foot-longs fixed to their tastes, plain in a bun for Hutch, loaded and dripping over the sides for Starsky, and walked while they ate.
"I learned a lesson today," Hutch said as they made another circuit of the pond and Eucalyptus grove, "and I think I understand why you need the job change, the hostage negotiation work, all of it. When we were cops, almost every day held something new. Very little down time. Slow days and dull stakeouts drove us nuts. Remember how you used to gripe about all the waiting? I'd forgotten that. This morning, I was having one of those days. It's not the first I've had in residency, but it really hit me today. I was bored out of my skull. Then I had two children come in, back-to-back, both in crisis, and their cases got complicated and challenging in a hurry. I hated watching them suffer; I was scared I couldn't do enough for them; but the chance to change their situations, to give them the best I medical care I could, hell, it rejuvenated me."
Pride in the man across from him nearly burst Starsky. Man, do I really have the guts to ask a guy like this to stick with me, forsaking all others, forever and ever? He could feel tiny bursts of electricity along his nerves, all the way up under his t-shirt sleeves.
"I know you can't tell me much, but they okay now, the kids?"
"The little girl is stable and comfortable in a private pediatric room with her mom, and the baby boy is doing much better than expected in Pediatric ICU." Hutch's smile made up for the weaker evening sunlight. "Point is, I know when you first started at the Academy, everything must've seemed new and its own kind of exciting, but it's nothing like the pace we used to keep, and you don't have direct involvement in many fluid, challenging situations, do you? The events in February were unusual. Not that you'd want a fire and shooting to be a regular occurrence, but--" Hutch's expression pleaded for confirmation.
"You're on the right track," Starsky said finally. "But I don't want you thinking I've been miserable or something. You're the most important person in my world, period. You're the one non-negotiable part of my life. I liked my Academy work, but when Levinthal offered me the chance to be a cop again, I knew I'd have a real hard time with myself if I didn't go for it. You had a career crisis, but you decided to stick with the path you're on. I had a career crisis, and decided I need to rearrange some things. Make sense?"
Hutch dabbed hotdog bun crumbs from his lips. "Yeah. I couldn't see past the worry, the fear."
Starsky got smacked upside the head with inspiration. "Let's do something about that."
"Worry, fear. I know just the thing. Let's make a stop and head home."
The stop turned out to be a package store. Full of hotdog and lulled by sunshine through the windshield, Hutch stayed in the car and let Starsky dash into the store.
Back in the driver's seat, stashing something wrapped in a brown bag between them, Starsky eyed him. "You said Bambi promised you there's no way you gotta be back in until tomorrow at four?"
"Yeah. She made Mannigan give me the full twenty-four hours I'd requested off, and I didn't get to leave until a little after four today."
"Then we'll make good use'a this."
"What is it?"
At home, Starsky sent Hutch out to the back patio with orders to fire up the tiki torches and set out the organic bug-repellent candles. He clearly had a plan and meant to keep the details to himself. For a change, Hutch didn't need to know the details ahead of time, content just to place the candles square in the center of the patio table, and sink down cross-legged on the patio per Starsky's request. Hutch ran a fingertip over the square velvet box at his side. If I don't get to give this to him soon....
When he caught sight of Starsky, he knew the plan, or most of it: Starsky had stripped to nothing but his ratty Army gym shorts, and when he sat down, Hutch saw that the bowl he carried contained index cards, two pens, a shot glass, a military-issue cigarette lighter, a bottle of Don Eduardo Silver tequila, and a long velvet box. Starsky emptied the bowl, arranging items slowly, precisely, with a flair for ritual.
Hutch waited in tense silence, torn between 1979 and 1986. He sought refuge in needling his partner. "You know, Starsky, you douse me in tequila and you might be drowning your chance of getting some tonight. I'm overworked, sleep deprived - natural hydraulics can only do so much."
"Nah, this isn't as potent as Cuervo Gold. Why I got it."
"Yeah, we'll take that chance. This is more important."
Hutch snapped his lips shut on the flippant remark. "You would do that for me?"
Starsky handed him a thin stack of index cards and pen. "You don't know by now?"
"No, I...know." He made a show of looking around. "No limes?"
Starsky snorted. "This is ceremony, Hutch, not a drinking game out in a club."
"I know," Hutch whispered.
"Here's how this works. Seven years ago, you helped me burn some guilt, pain, and ghosts when we lit up my jungle night mission bandana in this bowl and watched it burn. Tonight we're gonna burn some worries and fears. While we got a little daylight left, you jot down one word for each fear you got about me going back to the force; I'll jot one down for all the things I worry about with you over at Memorial. Then write down one fear you think I got about myself and this new job I won't talk about and I'll do the same for you. We'll talk ‘em out, burn each card in the bowl, share a half-shot of tequila and work through the whole pile until all the fears and worries are ash, dead and gone. Got it?"
"Sure. Let's do this."
After a few minutes of near silence -- scribbling, evening birdsong, flickering candle and torch flame - they put down their pens and watched each other across the empty bowl.
"You go first," Starsky said.
Hutch looked down at his card. "Receiving. I worry that something will happen and you'll be brought to Memorial in an ambulance in...rough shape. Mannigan thinks I, I don't know, treat every patient like they're you and I have to save them or I'm failing you. Hell, maybe in a way, he's right."
Starsky nodded. "Can't promise you that won't happen, Hutch. It could've happened to me in February when I was at the Academy still."
Hutch thought again about Jeff Simmons and shivered.
"Hey, hey. Easy. It could happen ‘cause I get t-boned in an intersection on the way to the grocery store. What you gotta realize is, if I do get brought in there like that, ain't a chance in hell Mannigan would let you within twenty feet of that exam table as a doctor. As my partner, my family, yeah, and I'm not sayin' that wouldn't wreck you, but you wouldn't have the responsibility, the pass/fail pressure, of trying to save me yourself. You'd have to step back and let it go, let someone else do the heavy lifting. Maybe now you can go ahead and let it go, huh?"
"I can try. Really. I will, I'll try."
"That's what this is about."
"Okay, then." Hutch gestured at the lighter. "Time for me to light it up?"
"Nope, this was your fear, about me, that means I gotta be the one to light it up." And Starsky did so, holding the lighter flame up to the corner of the card until it caught, edge browning, furling, and Hutch let the burning card drop in to the bowl. Starsky made quick work of opening the tequila and poured roughly half a shot in the glass. "Now we both take sips, swap some spit and tequila, and move on."
"Swap some--? Starsky."
Starsky frowned at him in the gathering darkness. "No, Hutch. We're letting go of fears. We don't have it; we got repeat lab work that says we don't. I'm okay with us not sharing, y'know, the biggie, but you're not keeping your spit from me. Come'ere."
Hutch leaned over the bowl and let Starsky tip a swallow of tequila into his mouth. He held it, waited for Starsky to empty the glass in the same way, and they met in the middle in an openmouthed kiss, touching tongues, sharing the peppery alcohol and the spit Starsky wanted.
It did feel...liberating.
Swallowing a laugh that wouldn't match the solemnity of the ceremony, Hutch said, "I know you didn't do that last part with your GI buddies."
"Fuck, no. This is the lovers' version of the ritual. You're the only one I've ever done this with. Only one I ever would. Okay. My turn." Starsky picked up an index card. "Disease. Maybe while you were in med school cracking the books, I could be relaxed all the time, sure. But now? You get stuck by a patient's needle; you might end up with a deadly disease. What if something exotic comes in that ER, like Jake Donner brought plague to those unsuspecting nurses and doctors? Sometimes I get sick to my stomach afraid of watching you suffer through that again. Not to mention all the other stuff you breathe in that place, and patients cough on you, puke on you. You're constantly walking a minefield of germs."
"Ah, Starsky. I can't make promises either, but like you said, I don't have to be at work for it to happen. I could pick something up like the Callendar plague in the public library. Needle sticks and other exposures? We take every precaution we know of, and I will promise you I won't get so rushed I forget about safety. All right? I'll watch my safety the way you used to watch my back on the streets, and I'll keep myself healthy as I can so that if some germ does jump on me I'll be able to better shrug it off."
A quick flash of teeth in a grin, and Starsky obligingly held out the card for Hutch to set it alight. Hutch poured their half shot, and they lingered over the tequila and kiss this time until sighs and breathless murmurs broke their connection.
His next card: "Stress. Hostage negotiation, Starsky? I understand why you want to do it. Like I said earlier, I get the need for something new, a challenge, but it's still field work. It's a long damned way from a desk job, that's for sure. It's not just the armed hostage takers that worry me. I'm concerned about the impact of all that stress on you. And what about your talk of never going back to partnered police work? What the hell are you doing but that, working with this Lieutenant Cato?"
"First of all: I'm no porcelain figurine, Hutch. You think I can't take a little stress? You think some desk jobs aren't stressful as hell? Look what Dobey went through, day in day out, and what the Academy put me through these last few weeks. Second, Cato won't be my partner; he's my boss, him and Levinthal, like Mannigan's your boss. Yeah, Cato's laid back like Mannigan about titles, but at lieutenant first class, he's still my ranking officer, and he's lead negotiator. You got no reason to feel--"
"Hold it! I'm not some jealous third grader who doesn't want his friend going over to a new friend's house to play. If you have to go in the field again, even if it's not on the streets, I don't want you out there alone, I want you to have backup, for God's sake. That's what I'm worried about. Will Cato be your backup, or will he see you as the grunt he can saddle with the crap he doesn't care to deal with? You won't be playing crossing guards with him, Starsky, you'll face life-threatening danger to civilians every time out of the gate. How many times did we see the aftermath of hostage crises that didn't resolve easy?"
"Things have changed, Hutch. Hostage negotiators don't just go racing into situations off the cuff. There's protocol, special training involved."
"You think that makes me feel better? You've never paid attention to protocol in your life. When someone was in trouble, you were always ready to knock me down to be the one in harm's way. I know some of that was to keep me out of danger, but not all. You're a born rescuer, Starsky."
"So are you. Why do you think I had to knock you down? Look, Hutch, Cato's not you, no one is, but he's a class act, from what I can tell. I'll be a consultant at best when I come out of the training, and I'll have plenty of time to learn the ropes, how crises are resolved without shoot-'em-up movie stunt work, and trust me, Cato won't keep me on the HCT unless I play it smart, not cocky."
Their kisses grew wetter, sloppier, deepening with each jolt of agave warmth from the tequila as they burned through several more cards. Starsky had a stress one of his own about Hutch's long hours and the demands of his chosen specialty - "Bambi told me a few things this afternoon that will help me set some boundaries." -- Hutch worried about Starsky using his authority to find a back door in to street duty-- "Levinthal wouldn't reinstate me if he thought I'd make a habit of busting in to armed robberies in progress." - they each feared their relationship causing the other hassle, maybe danger, as more people became aware of it - "We've got allies behind both the Blue and White Walls. The kind of allies that'll watch out for us, run interference."
With one card left on either side of the bowl, Starsky appeared to be steeling himself. "Here's where...it gets a little rough. I'll go first this time. I know why you got pissy when I was watching that Doctor Addict documentary. I hear you talk about interns cracking under the pressure, and how you're making mistakes 'cause you're pushed to the brink of drop-dead exhaustion. I know in the back'a your mind you think ‘cause of your past history with that bastard Forest, you might end up like the doc on TV who popped pills 'cause he couldn't take the grind. Well, I'm here t'tell you, no way, no how. You were addicted for days, Hutch, not years, you've been 100% clean ever since, and I never had a second's doubt ‘bout you when we were surrounded by smack after busts, so I got no worries you'll hear the morphine whisperin' to you at work. You needta stop doubting yourself."
"Oh...oh Christ, Starsky." Hutch didn't wait for the card to burn or for the tequila; he grabbed Starsky by the shoulders and drew him in to a harsh, dirty kiss that said thank you every way his tongue and lips could without forming speech. He gathered himself afterwards, watching the card burn to ash, taking with it his last vestiges of self-loathing from eleven years in the past.
Maybe he could do the same for Starsky.
He picked up his last card. "I know you think because of your black-ops work in the war, you don't have the right to sit in judgment over other cops who come before the review board, especially for disciplinary review. Give yourself a break...and some credit. You were a clean cop for ten years, Starsk, you saved more lives than you took, and you've taught hard-core ethics courses at the Academy for years and put all your heart and soul in them. You've earned the right to hold your high standards up as the measuring stick. I also know you're fair and you'll give every cop that comes up for review a fair shake."
"Loveya," Starsky whispered, thick-voiced from more than just tequila. "Loveya so much." He watched the last card burn, his eyes black as onyx from the night or perhaps dark memories. Hutch sensed that those eyes no longer reflected the sky of present day but the utterly still one that hung over jungle rent with napalm explosions and dirtied with blood and destruction no rainy season could cleanse.
For a helpless moment, Hutch respected the silence, his best and most needed friend miles from him despite close physical proximity. Terrifying love crashed in on Hutch. This dark, silent, complex brooder held as much sway over him as Starsky's sunnier persona. I want all of you, Starsk. All of you, forever. If I can just get the words out of my mouth to ask you.
"'M fine. Thanks t'you, ‘m fine." Starsky traced the bowl's rim with his ringed pinky. "Let's dump this shit, once and for all?"
Together they took the bowl to the far edge of their yard and scattered the ashes on the grass.
"I feel better," Hutch admitted. "Easier. Could be the tequila talking. I'm..." He had to clamp down on a giggle. "Pretty mellow right now."
"Yeah, we've tossed back probably three full shots apiece."
"I do think there's something to be said for getting fears out in the open, though."
"Whichever it is, or both, doesn't matter, long's it works."
Better, easier...Starsky felt that too. He also felt cleaner. Reborn. Balanced enough to scale Everest on disco platforms. It was now or never: if he couldn't say the magic words with three shots of tequila in him and plenty left in the bottle, he was a lousy ratfink coward who didn't deserve Hutch anyway.
He didn't want to get so drunk the memories wouldn't stick and, as usual, Hutch shared his wavelength, if not the reason: when Starsky returned to the patio from disposing of the no longer needed bowl, lighter, and the other trappings of ritual, he found that Hutch had set out two tall glasses of ice water, a big plate of tortilla chips and small bowls of sour cream and the salsa and guacamole that Paco swore by. They killed another fifth of the Don Eduardo and made a good dent in the snacks. The candles were flickering between them, until that gently dancing light and moon glow from high in the sky softened the night's edges the way the smooth alcohol and food softened jagged places inside Starsky.
"I'll bet you didn't expect to spend so much time talking me down off a limb today," Hutch said.
"You talked me down off one'a my own. Don't sweat it." Starsky gulped water chilled by melted ice and back-handedly wiped his mouth. "I got no problem with you wanting me around, safe and sound, long as possible. In fact..." He wiped his hands again on his lap, sweaty palms, not tortilla chip grease or salsa, the reason. "Close your eyes, willya?"
Hutch didn't give him an oh-for-heaven's-sake look, just closed his eyes. "This better?"
Even without the eye contact, Starsky had a hard time catching his breath, and he wanted to caress Hutch's longer hair where it curled a little at the tips around his neck.
"Almost ready. Keep your eyes closed."
He retrieved the long velvet case from the patio. Flicking the lid up, he stared hard at the handcrafted, one of a kind watch, proof of Sakchai's talent as jade artist, leather worker, and watchmaker. The band's intricate leather braid work was broad, masculine in style, the classic watch face trimmed in pure imperial green jadeite and attached to the band on either by side by matching carved jade caduceus symbols. Here goes nothing....
Starsky sat back down, glad for even the flimsy patio chair's solidity beneath him, and held out the open jewelry case. "Last week in my office at the Academy, I made the dumb-ass remark about not being able to tell you how I feel about anything beyond that specific time, something like that, and you asked me if that went for everything. Truth is: I breathe you, Hutch, and that's never gonna change. Let's make it official, you and me? Close as we can, anyway? Open your eyes."
Hutch blinked his eyes open and gasped. Then he whispered, "Ah, Starsk, with this watch I thee wed, is that it?" and did a little headshake that sucked all the breath out of Starsky's chest.
"Hey, if you're thinking I'm trying to make you out to be the, uh, the little woman or something, that's--hell, no, Hutch--"
Hutch was smiling. That smile grew into a rare, toothy grin. "Get serious. I couldn't be a little woman if I got estrogen through a central line and my pecs pumped up with helium to look like boobs. That's not it. I've had something waiting for you too. Bambi let me keep it in her locker so you'd have no way of finding it ahead of time. You're part bloodhound, part Christmas present shaker. You'll see what I mean in a minute." Hutch carefully slipped the watch from the ribbons holding it within the case, the shine in his eyes putting a stop to the samba Starsky's heart had been dancing with his ribcage. No trick of candlelight, that gleam, and reverence was visible in his touch as he circled his wrist with the leather band, buckled it to a perfect fit, and brushed his thumb over the jade work.
"Starsk, this is...breathtaking. One of a kind, isn't it? Handcrafted. This jade is genuine. The real thing, translucent, such a deep green. This is Sakchai's work."
"How did you know?"
"I've been to his store once or twice, and this has to be pure Burmese jade, which isn't something you see a lot of in Bay City. With his connections to Huggy, it's a safe bet. Starsky, this is beautiful, the most precious thing I've had close to my skin, second only to you."
Starsky grinned. "I'm a thing now?"
"Ass. Don't expect eloquence after you've plied me with good tequila. I'm...thank you, Starsk. Something from Sakchai, that's...."
Starsky heard the unspoken commentary on the likely expense. He shrugged. "Sakchai donates a third of all proceeds on every piece of jewelry to legit Asian charities, includin' some that, uh --" He took another sip of water to wash down a lump in his throat, "benefit the families of former Vietcong soldiers. I knew that'd mean something to your humanitarian soul. Means something to me."
"The jade's cool to my skin, but I can feel it warming."
"I know you're into meditation and biorhythms, and I've been doing some reading. Jade's supposed to vibrate with the heart chakra or something, promotes calm and serenity in chaos, and longevity and healing, and if that's not what you need in that pressure cooker where you work, I don't know what is."
"Between this and the lab coat you had monogrammed for me, I'll feel you with me every second I'm there, and I can't...can't tell you how much that means."
"Don't hafta, it's all over your face." Starsky had to scoop guacamole with a chip and shove it in his mouth before he let loose with something that angered the diabetes gods, too syrupy for them to stand. "So, what you been hiding in Bambi's locker?" he asked as soon as he'd swallowed down all the starch with his chip and dip.
Hutch blinked away from his concentrated study of the new watch on his wrist. "What? Oh! Yeah. Your turn. Close your eyes?"
Starsky closed his eyes and heard Hutch move, a quick to and fro, judging by the scrapes of his chair on the patio in short succession.
"Some things are too important for fancy speeches, so I'll just hit you with the truth: I want to spend the rest of my life with you, and I want you to have something to wear every day that reminds you I'm in this for good and forever. People change, we'll change too, as we get older, pursue separate careers. Life never stands still. But we'll change together. Well...open your eyes."
Starsky had exerted every ounce of willpower to keep from peeking through squinted eyes. He blinked, laughter escaping his lips when he saw the open black velvet watch box Hutch held out right next to his own. Then his timepiece lust got the better of him; he gaped at the glimmer of candlelight on the watch face's dual display. "That's a Heuer Carrera chronograph!"
"You like it?"
Hutch couldn't have astonished him more trying to put a Rolex on his wrist. Actually, the Heuer was more sporty-racy-functional, more him, than a Rolex or Cartier ever could be. So unlike Hutch, to spend that kind of money on a consumer product, and Starsky knew the significance: that circle of luxury Heuer stainless steel was a wedding band for the wrist.
"Like it? Blondie, like's not the word you use for a watch like this. People covet Carreras. They're the Porsche of Swiss watches. This knocks that Yamamoto platinum from years ago right outta the water, outta the whole ocean."
"I'm glad. It's not one of a kind, but I know you like gadget-y watches, and this one might look like it was crafted in the golden age of Swiss watches, but it's so advanced it does everything but split the atom. I couldn't risk rings with you at the Academy; even more so with you going back on the force."
"Some things never change," Starsky said, feeling his grin stretch from earlobe to earlobe. "We're still the guys who could show up at Metro wearing the exact same damn outfit without planning for it."
He lifted the watch out of the case's plush interior, cradled it in his hand for a second to let reality sink in: Hutch was his, he was Hutch's, and once again they'd made it through the rough water to the same side of the river together. He unclasped his old sporty Timex and replaced it with the Carerra, admiring the fit, the feel, already looking forward to mastering all of its functions.
"I thought about a Rolex," Hutch said with a tease in his voice, "but I didn't want to make you a target for watch muggers. Of course, now I know you'll be packing heat again, so in the words of that ridiculous TV show you watch occasionally, I ‘pity the fool' who tries to come between you and your timepiece."
Starsky snickered. "Nah, the Carrera's classy, not flashy, less chance it'll catch the attention'a the wrong unfortunate schmuck wantin' somethin' free."
Hutch watched Starsky get acquainted with his new mechanical love affair, amazed at his life, at his own peace and contentment. His reality was buttery soft leather and jade on his wrist, well-used patio furniture under his butt, tiki torches lending exoticism to the night in their too-small-for-a-pool backyard, and he wouldn't trade any of it for the biggest oceanfront mansion in Eucalyptus Bay.
"We just did something big, huh?"
Hutch glanced up at the question. Even in the faint lighting, he could tell by Starsky's expression that he was blushing, that rare, rosy flush to his cheeks Hutch had only seen during their lady-killer days in the presence of the world's most beautiful women, when Starsky was feeling a little out of his league and out-classed. Hutch had never imagined he could make Starsky blush like that, or be part of the reason for it.
He let out a nervous chuckle to show he felt much the same way. "Yeah, it felt good." He ducked his head, staring a hole in his jeans, and only looked up again when he'd blinked salty moisture from his eyes. "Behold the power of good tequila."
"Nope, we're just braver'n any ten men." Starsky put a hand to his forehead and did a pivot-twist in his chair. "I feel...all fizzy inside. Like I'm a two-liter soft drink someone shook up too hard then opened."
"That's probably gas from the nachos and guacamole."
Starsky mimed reaching for Hutch's neck. "See if I ever get romantic with you again, Medicine Man."
"Let's face it: we're not the kind of guys who'll get cameos on The Love Boat. Starsky, let's forget the move, what do you think? I want to stay here, and I know you want to."
"Really? What happened to house hunting?" Starsky smiled. "I was gearin' up for it."
Hutch spread his arms wide, trying to encompass the entirety of their property in his gesture. "This is our home. We made it a home together. I know we could do that somewhere else too, but...."
"And the pool for swimming laps after shift?"
"Memorial is about to break ground on a new physical therapy facility that will house a top-notch aquatic therapy program. I've heard that the pool will be available to all Memorial staff and signed-in guests when therapy hours aren't in session. Until then, there's always the Y. Nah, nah, for this yard, I'm thinking maybe a miniature Japanese garden? With a koi pond."
"A koi pond."
"Yeah. If I go to all the trouble of digging a hole back here and filling it with special water, filtration systems, and baby koi, what you wanna bet raccoons eat the pretty fish?"
Starsky broke into deep laughter. "I think your baby koi'd be in more danger if we had a cat. Hutch, this all sounds good, and I'm on board, and anything you wanna do here, inside the house or out, I'm your go-to guy, okay, but is there another reason you think stayin' put is the answer?"
"Last night I went upstairs to see R.C. before the AAPHR meeting, and you were right: he has been under a lot of stress recently. Business troubles."
"Ah, shit. What's wrong?"
"Tough competition from franchise print shops, for one thing. He has some great ideas about expanding the business to include screen printing, airbrushing, and custom t-shirt design, that sort of thing, but all that takes money, and I doubt they have banks lined up to loan them the capital with their past history."
"So he and Larry need help from a less official source, and you want us to provide it." Starsky nodded. "I'm good with that."
"Starsk." Hutch rewarded him with a soft smile. "I knew you would be. But not just us. They need a large infusion of cash up front, not month-by-month help, and you know R.C.'s pride. He danced as far away from the subject of money as he could. He doesn't mind us helping with little things: stopping by their place, feeding the cats, keeping Larry distracted. But with money? No, sir. He might accept help from a neutral source. I think if we could come up with a business investment plan and get a few people involved, including us, we might be able to sway him."
"Huggy would go in with us, no question. I could talk to Sally and Babcock. I know the Dobeys would want to chip in, but times are tight for them and they don't need to stretch things right now."
"I've got Nate and Teddy, the Morgensterns, and Sammie lined up."
Starsky flicked a tortilla crumb at him. "Put that time before the AAPHR meeting to good use?"
Hutch lowered his voice to the register he knew Starsky equated with hot sweaty tumbling in the sheets. "I know I'd like to put some time tonight to good use."
"You hard over there?"
"Getting there fast."
Hutch succumbed to giggles then, thumping the Don Eduardo bottle neck. "Oho, yeah, that's it: I'm officially buzzed." He started gathering the platter and bowls, halted by Starsky's hand on his arm.
"No, you ‘cooked;' I'll clean."
"Thanks. Meet you in the bedroom."
Starsky gave him the Bogey voice and a wink. "You bet your schexy blond assh."
When Hutch took longer than five minutes to materialize in their room, Starsky decided to pull back the covers and prop against pillows with Ray Bradbury short stories to kill time.
"I took a short walk around the house to clear some of the tequila fog." Hutch crossed his arms and yanked his pullover up and off, tossing it to the floor and going to work on his jeans.
Starsky licked his bottom lip, always one to appreciate a subtle Hutchinson striptease. His hands itched to pat down Hutch's mussed hair and run wild over his smooth skin, tracing muscles that he'd seen, felt in action.
Down to his birthday suit - and what a suit - Hutch crawled across the bed to him, Starsky already dropping Bradbury on the nightstand and reaching for Hutch at the same time. He'd had plenty of Hutch's mouth that night, spicy-sweet with tequila, but he couldn't get enough, and Hutch clearly meant to store up on his kisses for long days and nights at Memorial, all the while sliding his hands up and down Starsky's arms, leaving trails of sensation that led straight to Starsky's cock. Oh, yeah, those hands: two big, warm, compelling reasons for Starsky to be naked whenever possible. He didn't mind sharing the healing in Hutch's hands with the outside world as long as he had their intimacy to himself.
He massaged Hutch's shoulders as Hutch drew kisses down his neck, lingering over his chest and muttering something about the tickle of hair against his lips in a rich tone full of sex that hardened Starsky to aching. He had to clutch uselessly for handfuls of mattress when Hutch spread moist warmth and the taunting flick of tongue against balls already hot and heavy and then up the base of his dick.
"Hutch?" He didn't squeak. God, he hoped he hadn't squeaked.
"Letting go of some fears, remember?"
Hutch didn't stray near the head, already wet and smearing stickiness on Starsky's belly, but drilled his tongue tip along the vein until Starsky could have sworn Hutch was slipping into his bloodstream, bound nonstop for his heart. Or maybe his brain, because he pretty much lost it at that point.
One minute Hutch was worshiping his cock every way but sucking it; the next, he'd rolled Hutch over to return the favor, issuing demands between kisses and licks, making it clear he wanted Hutch's cock to renew its torrid love affair with Starsky's ass, and after that, everything happened in a blur of sweat and arousal. His senses took on lives of their own, separately experiencing each sensation.
His skin cataloged the softness of mattress under his knees, the solidity of headboard in his grip, the warmth of Hutch's thighs under his, slickness of fingers going deep, the cool kiss of jade to his chest as he pushed against the cradle of Hutch's left arm.
His nose was busy with musk, sweat, the residue of soap from Memorial's physician locker room shower, Hutch's breath hitting the side of his face with hints of hot dog, chips, salsa and guacamole, all soaked in tequila, and then there were fainter smells: whiffs of aftershave, of the new leather around Hutch's wrist, of latex.
His ears trained on his grunts and gasps of encouragement when Hutch began tugging him back on to his lap, fitting himself, pushing in, letting out huffs and choked-off whimpers to match.
He could taste the need for them to find their rhythm, him undulating back, Hutch snapping forward, as they knelt together, and his sight rested in the darkness behind his closed eyelids.
Hutch mouthed his ear, panting his name, lighting him up with every snap-sharp thrust as easily as the cigarette lighter had set their fears aflame, and when Hutch wrapped his lube-slick hand around Starsky's cock, thumbing the ridge, all he could do was fling his head back on Hutch's shoulder and cry out, "Gonna...gonna shoot...now..." and then come in one jerking pulse after another until the darkness behind his eyelids had spangles.
Friday, July 18th, 1986
Hutch woke to the warmth of Starsky wrapped around him from behind. Snuffles and snores ruffled his hair in back; one strong arm stretched out under his neck, one draped over his side to rest against his middle. Sleep had restored nonessential circulation: Hutch's morning erection curved toward his belly, straining like it wanted to slap against Starsky's arm. He felt the answering nudge of moist-tipped firmness against his tailbone.
"Mornin'," Starsky breathed against Hutch's neck before tightening his lips in a sucking kiss that would leave a mark if he didn't watch it. "Umm," he groaned against Hutch's neck, pushing that needy cock harder against him.
"Morning." Hutch coughed to clear morning scratchiness from his throat.
"Last night kicked ass."
"I hope you mean that in a good way, not literally."
Starsky's lewd laughter rumbled against Hutch's neck. "Yeah, good, great, excellent ‘n fact. I dunno about you, but I think I got tiny squirrels tryin' to chew through my brain and my mouth tastes like I munched on rotten seaweed all night, but you up for a little more?"
"Move your hand a few inches south and tell me what you think."
He got his wish. Starsky treated his cock to a tunnel of warm palm and fingers, gliding him just right, thrusting against him with quick flicks of his hips.
"Ah, man." Starsky silenced his vocal need against Hutch's neck, thrust hard against Hutch's lower back, and held him still and rubbed. "Ah, Hutch. Hutch."
"Rub yourself off on me back there. I get a kick out of feeling you come on my skin."
Starsky's wet mouth clamped down over his shoulder, suppressing a harsh, sexual cry. Hutch smiled and covered the hand around his cock with his own, holding that fleshy tunnel in place. Sweaty trial and error made for great morning sex. He listened to their muffled noises, enjoyed the hard nudge of cockhead against his tailbone, all the more so when Starsky's hips pushed him forward, adding to the friction of his thrusts through the tight ring of fingers around his cock.
"Need...need...need..." Starsky grunt-muttered into Hutch's hair.
Breaking Starsky's hold on his cock, he whipped over on his other side, bumping hips with Starsky, slapping their bellies together. Fumbling between their bodies, he mated their dicks in the circle of his hand, rubbing into Starsky's frantic thrusts. They sealed off twin gasps and shouts in a heated lip-lock, and with a squeeze, a tug, one perfect moment of friction below and slide of their tongues against each other above, Starsky jerked, and the wet muskiness of his orgasm slicked the way for Hutch's.
The first breathless words out of Starsky's mouth were, "Who says safe can't be sexy?"
Hutch kissed him again. "Somebody in this bed is a romantic. Now you see why I got you to write up a safe-sex pamphlet for the Bay City West community center."
"Hey, it meant plenty'a hands-on research with you, so I was there with bells on, gorgeous."
"Right now we need water and soap. Could I interest you in a shower for two?"
Starsky yawned into their kiss. "Don't wanna move." He brushed through Hutch's hair with the side of his hand. "Think I passed out last night."
"My short term memory's excellent, and it's telling me, yes, you did."
Starsky slapped a hand over his eyes and groaned. "Tequila remorse."
"Oh, thanks a lot! I thought it was the incomparable sex."
Starsky pointed at him. "If that's your Midwestern way'a saying you fucked me senseless, then yeah, that too." He stretched, grunting. "Still don't wanna move."
"Then don't. We've got time. Until around three o'clock this afternoon, in fact. I know you might not recognize it without the chilled champagne, chocolate-covered strawberries, heart-shaped bed and tuxedos strewn across the floor, but this is supposed to be our honeymoon."
"Umm...like the sound of that. Hey, when things calm down to where you get more'n twenty-four hours away from that place, let's go somewhere and indulge in one of those for real. Maybe not the heart-shaped bed, but I could go for the chocolate and champagne." Starsky's complexion suddenly paled to gray-green, and he gulped. "Ugh. Not right now though."
Hutch pulled him close. "Just lie here and doze. I'll throw together a remedy for your tequila-nacho remorse in a little while."
"Ma, I married a doctor," Starsky said, voice sleepy but full of love and pride.
Hutch could have sworn he heard his jaw protest the stretch of his grin. "Yeah, well, I always had a feeling I'd marry a cop."
"Not officially a cop yet," Starsky murmured.
"Starsk, you never stopped being a cop." Hutch heard a soft snore. "I'm just glad I finally woke up and realized it."
Monday, July 21st, 1986
Starsky tried not to get his hopes up about the summons to Levinthal's office. Sure, Dobey had hinted that the commissioner moved quickly, and Starsky had seen evidence to support that claim, but part of him wouldn't believe this was real until he had his badge holder in hand and a firearm holstered under his arm.
The assistant offered him a bright smile and waved him by, ducking behind her computer and tapping away at enviable speed. Starsky made a mental note to step up his window browsing at the electronics stores. If he and Hutch weren't pulling up stakes and taking on a pricier mortgage, he could probably invest in a PC, and maybe the plans for a koi pond would distract Hutch from playing driveway basketball with the pricey machinery.
One foot inside the office, Starsky stopped short in involuntary surprise as he gawked at the three men who looked like they'd known each other for years, chatting like old pals. Cato in his cargos and BCPD t-shirt and smart-suited Levinthal didn't surprise him, but damn it was good to see Hutch in khakis and plaid that had seen street duty and holding his own in conversation with the veteran officers as though he'd never missed a beat, never left their beat. Even better, Starsky could tell by Hutch's loose posture and hand gestures that he felt comfortable around both Cato and Levinthal. For all the times Starsky wanted to smack Mannigan, he trusted him with Hutch's welfare, and he wanted Hutch to have that same trust in these two men, his future supervisors.
Starsky cleared his throat, turning the trio's attention his way. Hutch smiled but kept his place in front of the desk while Cato and Levinthal came over for handshakes. Starsky locked eyes with Hutch and initiated a silent conversation that Levinthal and Cato would never be able to interpret without the years of practice Dobey had. See? Think Cato's smart enough to watch my back? Yeah, yeah, he's on probation, buddy, but I'll give him the benefit of the doubt before I sling him against a wall and school him on keeping you safe.
"I'm certain you know why you're here," Levinthal said. "It's my pleasure and privilege to welcome you back to the police force, Detective Lieutenant. I'll let Dr. Hutchinson do the honors."
Hutch stepped forward then, a holster swinging by its straps from his shoulder, and handed Starsky a leather badge holder that matched Hutch's watch for softness. Starsky opened the holder, gut punched in the best way by the shiny shield and his ID. This was real, this was happening. He pocketed the holder and slipped out of his sports coat, stunned by the small miracle occurring in this official police department domain - his lover, his partner, helping him into his new holster and adjusting the fit.
Cato came forward next, bearing a black reinforced pistol case. "They had a Glock prepared for you, but your partner told us you're strictly a Beretta man." Starsky flashed a grin at Hutch, and Cato opened the case. The contents got a whistle of appreciation from Starsky.
"Beretta 87. Nice. Eight round clip, .22 LR cartridge, yeah, this baby handles well." Starsky loaded the clip, getting the feel of the gun, and holstered his weapon. "And I can honestly say I hope I never, ever have to use it." He got a chill when he thought of Hutch perhaps fielding a gunshot victim he'd sent to Memorial, however righteous the shoot.
Hutch gave him a tiny, knowing smile; Starsky knew it wasn't a stretch to assume Hutch had read his mind. Holding out his hand for a shake, Hutch said, "Congratulations, partner."
Oh, no. None of that handshake shit! Starsky took Hutch's hand but pulled him into a backslapping hug, nothing that Metro hadn't seen out of them during their years as street cops.
Hutch opened the T-Bird's door, then turned, leaning his arm along the window frame. All the way to the parking lot, he'd cast side glances at Starsky, amazed by the change in his carriage, the new mantle of authority, confidence that he wore as well as the dark slacks, denim shirt and holster-covering sports coat. He wanted to kick himself for not realizing years before that Starsky minus a badge was a puzzle missing a piece, not a central piece but one that completed the picture.
"Follow me to the Pits?"
Starsky looked startled. "The Pits?"
"Something wrong with your hearing, geezer? Yeah, the Pits. Huggy's got ribs waiting for me and those cocktail beef sausages and meatballs in sauce you make orgasmic noises over."
"You don't have to head right back to Memorial?"
"Not until seven. I told you, Starsk: boundaries. I'm allowed to have a life outside of medicine."
Starsky had a smile for that. "Damn right. Okay, I'll catch you at the Pits."
Huggy greeted them at the bar entrance. Starsky plucked at the Bear's neon blue suit coat and flicked his fingers at the piano key necktie. "What's with you and laser-beam threads?"
Huggy mock-scowled. "Least I don't look like I blew in from 1978. Come on, I got some delicacies on hold and I don't want ‘em getting cold."
Starsky licked his lips. "Hope you made lots. I could eat your weight in meatballs."
Those were the last words out of Starsky's mouth for the next five minutes. He went openmouthed and silent, wide-eyed and staring, when they walked in to a crowded bar that erupted in applause.
"Tilt," Starsky said, lounging against the Spanish Eyes pinball machine.
Jim Gibson pointed his half-full beer glass at the spectator. "Stop shaking it!"
"Who's shaking it?" Starsky lightly thumped the glass rim. "You must be drunk."
"On less than two beers? You must be joking. I haven't gotten drunk on less than three beers since I was fourteen, and that was on an empty stomach." Gibson patted his midsection. "My stomach is full and satisfied. Your pal Huggy knows his way around hot wings, and that dish with the cocktail sausages and meatballs? I'd slap cold, hard cash on the counter to know what's in the sauce."
Starsky looked up from trying to level the colorful but temperamental pinball machine. Hutch had made it over to the bar for an iced coffee refill, the perfect opportunity for Starsky to corner him and plant a thank-you on him for this little shindig. He swatted Gibson on the lower back. "I'll get back to you on the secret to Huggy's sauce," he said, already in motion to get to Hutch.
"Whup-shh!" Gibson cracked an imaginary whip.
Starsky gave him a yeah-whatever look over his shoulder. "You sayin' I'm whipped? Uh-huh. I'm supposed to take that from a guy who's been with the same woman for twenty-four years?"
Grinning, Gibson pointed at himself cracked another invisible whip with his other hand. "Whup-shh!"
Hutch lingered by the end of the bar. Halfway to him, Starsky slowed his stride to the seductive come-on approach he would've used in a nightclub, happier than a clam to use it for Hutch instead of some dance club princess. He stopped a few inches from contact and covered Hutch's hand on the bar with his own, letting his other hand wander slowly up the button placket of Hutch's shirt to finger the collar. He heard Hutch catch his breath.
"Figured the evening for a loss 'til you showed up," Starsky said in his huskiest tone, role playing for all he was worth.
"With all these people here?" Hutch whispered, sultry heat in his voice. His nimble fingers flicked discreetly at Starsky's shirt just above the beltline.
"Had my mind set on goin' home with a tall, athletic blond who's got more heart than Gandhi." Starsky pointed his thumb over his shoulder at the bar's occupants. "See anybody else matching that description?"
"Going home with me? Man, you work fast."
"I know what I want, and I get what I want." Without a care for any onlookers, he touched his lips to Hutch's, the dry heat of their closed-mouth kiss a counterpoint to the moist heat between their hands on the bar.
"Hey, hey, my eyes, my eyes! Oh, God, I'm blind. How the hell'm I gonna drive home!" yelled Babcock goodnaturedly in the background as feminine whistles and cat calls sounded from the circular booth.
"Detective Sergeant Babcock, don't make me tattle to Ms. Lieutenant Sally that you misbehaved in her absence," threatened Huggy. "She's liable to pull rank on your shrimpy ass and confine you to the couch."
"Shrimp? Who you calling a shrimp, Beanpole? If I sneezed five feet from you, it'd blow you over, and you're talking trash to me?"
"All right, people," said Paco. "Give the guys a little privacy, ay?"
"How lucky are we, huh?" Hutch whispered in Starsky's ear.
"Hey, ole Satchemo had it right: it's a wonderful world."
"Well, I still have concerns about the one out there," Hutch said with a wave in the direction of the exit. "But the one in here is a pleasant surprise."
"Talkin' of pleasant surprises. This whole deal qualifies, and I know you had a hand in it."
"Oh, yeah? How you figure that?"
"Come on, Hutch. With Jim, Clifton and Janice here, I know you were in on it. Huggy might be all that with the up-to-the-minute info, but he's not omniscient. Thanks, buddy boy. Means a helluva lot."
"You're welcome, Starsk, but really, I just told Huggy who might like an invite, that's all."
"I can't believe how many people he got here on a weeknight. Maddy had to stay home 'cause she's waiting on some call from a research colleague in Nairobi. Sal was stuck at Metro."
"Kiko had to work. Bethany's supposed to come and bring Sammie along."
"Well, hello, stranger!" called out Huggy from the circular booth he shared with Paco, Maureen, Nate Constantino and his partner, Teodore Saravia, known to friends as Teddy. Clifton and Babcock turned from their game of darts, and all play ceased at the pool table, Janice Clifton lifting her cue stick and nearly whacking her opponent Anita in the side. "Ladies and gent'mens, Captain Dobey's in the house!"
The captain had a smile and wave that included everyone from booth to pool table, but he beelined for Starsky and Hutch. "Men." Handshakes all around, and Dobey nodded at Starsky. "Congratulations. Glad you took my advice, and I told you Aron doesn't mess around."
"That you did, Captain. Thanks."
Potent cologne announced Paco Ortega's presence. "Looked like I wouldn't be intruding," he said, shaking Dobey's hand. "Captain, it's been too long! How you doin', ay?"
A shimmer caught Starsky's attention and turned his gaze to the bar entrance. He almost swallowed spit down the wrong pipe. Bethany Morgenstern had arrived in a sequined zebra-striped tunic over jeans tucked into black suede boots. He pretended to shield his eyes. "My God, Bethany, you could accidentally divert air traffic from LAX in that get-up."
She looked down at her outfit, then divided a smart-ass silent snarl between him and the staring Hutch and Paco. "What? I'll have you fashion philistines know, this top is an Yves St. Laurent original. And I thought this was a reinstatement party. Aren't you a zebra?"
Hutch shot a long-suffering look at the ceiling. Starsky swallowed laughter. "Paco, this is Dr. Bethany Morgenstern," Hutch said, "Beth, Paco Ortega, one of our former law enforcement colleagues. The gentleman who just left to claim his platter of baked chicken wings was our former captain, Harold Dobey. Beth, Starsky was a zebra. A zebra's not big enough for him now. No ma'am. This go round, he'll be a king. King Henry, no less."
"Well, damn it, why didn't someone tell me? I have this great blouse with tiny faux pearls clustered on the front in the shape of crowns." Her eyes widened, and Starsky swiveled to see what had triggered that reaction. "Who is that?"
"Who?" he asked.
"That lady with the cute feathery haircut. In the pink denim jacket and skirt? At the pool table."
"That's Anita. She manages this place for Huggy. She's a class act."
"That's the one for Sammie," Bethany crowed. "I've always told you I'd know her when I saw the right one. Didn't I tell you?"
"Sammie?" Paco asked.
"Short for Samhara. Dr. Samhara Mason."
"Sammie's not coming," Bethany told them. "She said to tell you she's very sorry, Starsky, but Mama Walters isn't having a good night. Oh, well. I can lay some introductory groundwork; tell this Anita what she's been missing all her life. She's not attached, is she?"
Starsky lost the battle against laughter. "Beth, you might wanna go back to yenta school. Anita's spent the last eight years or so crushing on my partner here."
"She has not," Hutch protested.
Bethany shrugged. "It's probably situational."
Hutch gawked at her. "Situational heterosexuality? That's a new one."
Bethany smiled at Paco and hurried off on her mission, tossing a "Congrats, Starsky" over her shoulder.
Paco watched her determined trek to the pool table. He puffed out his chest. "Hey, Hutch, amigo, maybe this Bethany, she can find someone for me, no? I'm not so hard to please. Just point me to a pretty senora with a sweet smile who knows her own mind and more recipes than your Huggy the bear?"
"Paco, you're a Latin Romeo. Love 'em and leave 'em, that's your MO, my friend; compared to you, Julio Iglesias is a monk, and if you pulled that stunt with a lady Beth found for you, she'd plant those suede boot heels in your ass. I'm only thinking of your welfare, pal."
Paco smirked, tweaking his mustache. "I'll just have to conveence her I am only starved for the affection of the one woman meant for me."
Hutch sighed as Paco walked away. Starsky nudged him, pointing at the crowd of partiers. "Remember what we said last night about our allies? This is our family, Hutch."
Hutch had to smile. "Yeah, this is our big, crazy life." Life had knocked them to their knees more than once, they had hurt, they had hurt each other, they had hurt for each other, but they were still together, still in love. "We have a lot to celebrate, Starsk."