Starsky had surfaced from his coma days ago, but had yet to offer much more than an occasional blink and smile. No words, no movement, no strength for it at all. Not out of the ordinary for the trauma he’s suffered his doctors assured, normal for his condition the nurses concurred. But the doctors and nurses didn’t know Starsky, did they?
The unnaturalness of so still and quiet a Starsky was unnerving. Even in his sleep Starsky had always been a symphony of moans and groans conducted by flailing limbs and twitching muscles. Many a stakeout threatened the peace of their relationship as Hutch battled endless prattling and perpetual energy bottled up inside a car.
Now, though, Hutch would gladly take an elbow in the head or a foot to the ribs. He’d give just about anything for a discussion. Even an argument would be just fine. But another night had passed without sound or stirring, not even the tiniest sign Starsky was really coming back to him.
A quick warning tap and rubber–soled footsteps interrupted his thoughts. Hutch didn’t have to look up
; he knew the morning drill by heart. Bandages changed, tubing checked, vitals taken, and best friends asked to step out for a while.
Hutch held Starsky’s hand, too warm, in his opinion, for the fever to be going down, and that was worrisome, as well. He rose from the chair, speaking softly in tones reserved just for Starsky, “They want me to go for a little while, Starsk, but I’ll be back, soon as they let me.”
Hutch gave the nurse a nod in greeting. He reluctantly let go of Starsky’s hand and brushed the back of his fingers on Starsky’s cheek, hoping for his eyes to open, for just a moment, to connect, to confirm, to share. But Starsky didn’t respond.
Dobey was waiting outside the room. “How’s he doing?”
“Still sleeping, still feverish, still critical. But no worse. Doctors say that’s good.” As the days wore on, Hutch’s initial euphoria after Starsky’s phoenix–rising awakening faded in the face of complications and infections. Weariness chipped away at his optimism.
At a loss for anything more to say, Hutch turned and stared back into the room as several nurses now attended to Starsky.
“Got something for you,” Dobey said to his back. “Thought you’d want to handle this one yourself.”
Now that Gunther was in custody and his second–in–command dead, various levels of his operation were quickly crumbling from the top down. A lot had happened in the past week, with new avenues to investigate and several arrests. Leads were followed by all available detectives. Hutch dug through as much of it as he could himself, building a case with which the district attorney couldn’t fail.
Dobey continued. “A tip came in early this morning; coupla hikers found an abandoned police car in a gully in a vacant old campground. Patrolmen are there now, confirmed the find. It’s the one. I told ’em not to touch it. Forensics is on the way. They’re waiting for you if you want it.”
Gunther was locked up. That was certainly satisfying, but the triggermen themselves had evaded the police so far. Jenny Brown’s new lawyer had wisely advised her that two charges of conspiracy to commit murder of a police officer were serious. Cooperating with the police after the fact may buy her a little leniency in sentencing. Unfortunately, she did not know the names of the men she paid for the hit, nor did she have any luck with the mug books. The car was a big piece of the puzzle. It disappeared after the shooting, but they’d been searching for it. The car might have prints, might have links, might have some evidence to tie it to the men who actually pulled the trigger. Of course he wanted it.
Hutch turned around to face Dobey. “Yeah, I want it. Let’s go.”
Hutch took a minute to go back into Starsky’s room, leaving instructions to tell Starsky, if he woke, that he’d be back as soon as possible, and reminding the nurses to call the department and have him paged if anything came up or there were changes in Starsky’s condition. Leaving Starsky was always so hard. Hutch lived in fear he’d take a turn for the worse while he was gone. It had happened before.
During the ride up to the campground, Dobey radioed the forensics team, letting them know Hutch was on the way. Meanwhile, Hutch readied himself in anticipation of what he’d be facing. He was no novice to crime scenes, but found he was unprepared for his own reaction when he’d gone back to see the Torino. It wasn’t just blood. It was Starsky’s blood. It wasn’t just bullets and bullet holes. Some of the bullets recovered had actually sped through Starsky’s body before embedding into the heavy metal of the car. Hutch had vomited at the thought and had to turn away. Seasoned cop or not, it was Starsky, and it was too much to bear.
There were, in fact, a lot of people waiting when they pulled up. Not only cops, but the hikers who found the car as well as the owner of the defunct campground. The forensics team was already at work looking for prints. The car itself was left in a gully off the campground’s dirt road entrance. Judging by the weeds and grass growing in the middle of it, the road didn’t see many cars.
Hutch decided they’d better take statements first. While Dobey talked to the owner, Hutch started with the hikers, a young couple dressed in full outdoor gear, backpacks and all. They probably meant to spend all day or longer in the woods.
Hutch approached them, pulled out his badge, and introduced himself. “I’m Detective Hutchinson. Thank you for waiting for me
.” he said. “You folks hike here often?” He tucked his badge into one pocket and retrieved his notebook from another.
“Yeah, we do come up here a lot,” the man answered
, “There’s trails leftover from when it used to be a campground. There’s a fishing lake through the trees that way.” He pointed in the direction of a woodsy area the road obviously led to.
“When’s the last time you were up here?” Hutch asked.
“Couple weeks go,” the woman answered this time. “The owner’s a friend of ours, works with my husband here. He inherited this place from his grandfather. He lets us come here to hike and camp. Some of our other friends come up here, too. Far as I know, none of them have been in a while.”
“That’s the owner over there?” Hutch pointed to the man talking to Dobey. He had on a suit and tie, clearly not dressed for the place.
“That’s him,” she answered. “We called him before we called the police. You know, to ask him if he knew about the police car. We thought maybe he called them here for some reason. We thought something could have happened to the cops who were in the car. So we called the police, too.”
“Then the car was definitely not here the last time you were, correct?” Hutch continued questioning. “And you’ve never seen it before?”
The man answered. “It definitely wasn’t here before. We thought it was really strange.”
“We’ve been looking for it. We’re grateful that you called.” Hutch thanked them for their help. Before leaving them, he took their full names and phone numbers and advised them to find another hiking spot for a while, just in case.
Hutch then headed to the gully. Approaching the car was as difficult as he’d expected. Seeing it again brought the shooting right back, and it took everything he had to keep walking. He saw the grill as he stepped down into the gully. In his mind it was speeding toward him. He felt his heart pound with the adrenaline rush. He heard the burst of gunfire and the shattering of glass, but above it all, his partner’s last word. The cut off version of his name was the last thing Starsky ever said. And that was a week ago now. Hutch felt the now familiar sting in his throat and behind his eyes thinking about it. Starsky had called his name, the last thing he could say before the bullets stole his strength and consciousness completely. His name. Starsky needed him, counted on him, called for him. And he’d failed. Failed to stop the bullets, failed to stop the bleeding, and so far failed to bring justice to the men who shot him.
Dobey caught up and put his hand on Hutch’s back before he had a chance to fall too deeply into the nightmare. “Hutch, you okay?”
The sound of Dobey’s voice startled him. “I’m okay, Captain,” he lied. While the guilt and pain were overwhelming, they were also strengthening his resolve and fueling his anger. He wasn’t about to lose the chance to take a look at this car now that they had it. “What’d the property owner have to say?”
“Nothing much,” Dobey answered. “Says he didn’t know the car was here. He never comes up here. Investment property only. Lets his friends use it, but he hasn’t been here himself in a year or more. City guy, suit and tie. Nature not his thing. His coworker over there, the guy you talked to, called him. He knew the police were coming so he came up to check it out. Seems like he’s tellin’ the truth, but we’ll look into him anyway. Maybe he knows the shooters and let ’em hide the car here.”
Hutch doubted it. The guy knew his friends frequented the place and would find it. But he agreed everyone needed to be looked at more closely.
“Okay, “one of the forensics guys said as he moved toward them, “the car’s clean. We didn’t find a single print. Wiped like new. Car has been stripped of everything. Not a hair, not a fiber, not a thing. I’m sorry, Hutch.”
Hutch couldn’t believe that was possible. He needed to look for himself. “You guys done? Can we take a look now?”
“It’s all yours. I hope you find something.” Everyone wanted these men found. The past week had brought all areas of crime investigation together. The shooting in the police parking lot set in motion a level of camaraderie and dedication the department had rarely seen before, especially among those who knew Starsky and Hutch.
Dobey and Hutch took their time thoroughly searching the car themselves. But they found nothing either. Hutch slammed the passenger door in frustration. “Dammit!” He shouted. “Why couldn’t there be something here?” An image flashed in his memory. Starsky in Prudholm’s apartment, throwing the lamp and screaming almost the same thing.
“We’ll get ’em, Hutch. They’ll slip up somewhere. We’ll get ’em,” Dobey tried to reason.
Hutch wasn’t having it, however. He was angry. He was disappointed. He missed Starsky so much it hurt. It was so hard to do all this without him.
He snapped at Dobey. “Captain, they used an automatic weapon at close range. They tore Starsky apart. He may never be okay again.”
“You think I don’t know that, Hutch? I’m on your side, remember?”
Once again, an image of Starsky. “Don’t antagonize the people I need.” Hutch heard it plain as day in his mind and it calmed him down. Starsky always calmed him down.
“Sorry, Captain. It’s just this car. This was the lead we needed and we found it and we still got nothing. How are we going to find them now?” Hutch let out an exasperated sigh and started to climb out of the gully to the road. Dobey joined him without ever answering the question.
The few yards they needed to go to get to Dobey’s car felt like a mile to Hutch. He’d had such high expectations only to have them crushed. What was he going to tell Starsky when the time came? How could he let his partner, his best friend, lie in pain in a hospital bed, and tell him he has no idea where the men who shot him are?
As they pulled out of the campground, the impound tow truck was pulling in. Adding to Hutch’s already brimming anger and frustration was the finality the truck represented. When it had come for the Torino, it had meant the end of the life he knew with the person he loved. Seeing it come for the police car felt like the end of finding out who’d caused it. Hutch closed his eyes, as if that might shut out the thought.
Dobey dropped Hutch at the hospital and headed to Metro to file a report on the campground interviews. Hutch agreed to meet him in his office later on to help. But first, he needed to see Starsky. It’d been several hours now and anything could have happened in that time. Hutch beat down his anxiety over this fact as he maneuvered the maze of hospital corridors to the ICU.
When he arrived, he was surprised to find Starsky awake. As Hutch reached the bed, he noticed the sheen of perspiration on Starsky’s face and the pain in his eyes. He immediately felt guilty he hadn’t been there when Starsky woke, especially since it turned out he left for nothing.
“Starsk, I’m here… I’m here… I’m so sorry. I came back soon as I could.” He wanted to explain why he was gone, but knew Starsky was in no position to understand what was going on. He’d fallen asleep right in the middle of Hutch’s explanation of how Gunther was responsible for it all. Starsky’s continued silence had left Hutch unsure just how much Starsky even understood about what had happened to him.
Hutch picked up Starsky’s hand, gently rubbing the back with his thumb. He continued to soothingly reassure him while, with his other hand, he grabbed a cool washcloth from a basin on the bedside stand and wiped his forehead. Starsky smiled in response and visibly relaxed with Hutch’s touch. Moments later Starsky was asleep. Hutch felt good that he could at least bring some comfort in the brief time they had but his heart sank at a missed opportunity for communication.
He sat down next to Starsky’s bed, never letting go of his hand. He was zero for zero for the day, missing a rare awake Starsky and still having no leads on the actual hit men. Heartsick, disappointed, exhausted, he put his head back and drifted off himself.
Hutch woke hours later to a nurse nudging him. He jumped up, alarmed at first, and then realized she was pointing through the glass. Captain Dobey stood there holding up file folders and trying to grab Hutch’s attention. Once the nurse confirmed there was no change in Starsky’s condition, Hutch joined Dobey outside the room.
“Captain, what are you doing here? What happened?” Dobey wore a slight smile and Hutch couldn’t imagine what there was to be smiling about.
“Hutch, we got lucky. Apparently after we left, the car was hoisted up on the tow truck. It took a while, winching it out of the gully and all. Once they did, they found something under the car.”
“What? Wait… who found something? What did they find? I’m not following…”
“The forensics guys, they were still there after we left, packing up all their supplies, writing their report. Fortunately, they were still there because when the car was lifted, the truck driver spotted something in the grass.”
“Captain, what was it?”
“Sunglasses. Call came in to me just after I dropped you off. I didn’t want to get your hopes up again, so I figured I’d let you stay with Starsky and I’d get word to you once I knew something. Well, I know something. And it’s good news, Hutch; prints on the sunglasses came back with a positive ID. Got a name. Got an address. List of priors a mile long. And you’re not going to believe this, but last time he was busted, guess who his lawyer was, guess who posted bail?”
“Jonathan Wells,” Hutch immediately answered.
“You got it. Same as Jenny Brown. With the priors and the car, that’s no coincidence. Got to be who we’re looking for. We put this in high gear. Got everyone we can spare on it. We bring this guy in and hold him a while–”
Hutch cut him off and finished the sentence “–Jenny Brown gives a positive ID he’s one of the ones she paid for the hit and we got him.”
“Right!” Dobey said. “Maybe we can even get him to give up his partner, too.”
“That was fast. How’d you get all that so fast?” Hutch was amazed they had this much already.
“Hutch, you know everyone at the department is rooting for you… and for Starsky. Evidence like this comes in, it’s top priority. I didn’t even have to ask. Judge even signed the warrant on the spot, no questions.”
“You should have called me, Captain. I would have come in,” Hutch said.
“Look, I knew you were on the edge after this morning. I didn’t want you to have to go through that again if this was just another dead end. Besides, you needed to see Starsky. He needs you, too.” Dobey hesitated for just a second, looked in at Starsky then back to Hutch. “How’s he doin’ anyway? Any changes?”
“He was awake when I got here, but not for long. I could tell he was in a lot of pain. He’s just so weak…” He trailed off in a whisper of sadness as he spoke, then shook it off quickly and changed the subject. He couldn’t afford to go there now. He had to focus. Determination came to his face and voice. “Let’s go do this. I want to be able to tell him the men who shot him are locked up.”
This was the arrest he needed most. This would change everything, Hutch thought, as he whispered to a sleeping Starsky that he had to leave again.
Dobey filled Hutch in on the plan as they drove. Marked and unmarked police cars had all the streets around the house covered. Detective teams were in place covering the front and back entrances to the house. They’d already been watching and someone was definitely inside. When Hutch and Dobey pulled up and parked across the street, everyone was ready.
“Sure you’re okay to do this, Hutch?’ Dobey asked.
“I need to do this,” Hutch answered. “I have to get this guy.” He knew he couldn’t fail Starsky again.
“Alright then. You know the plan. You knock. If he tries to run, we got him covered every way till Sunday. Go easy, Hutch, we need him.”
“You don’t have to tell me that, Captain.” Hutch got out of the car and headed up the walkway. He didn’t really blame Dobey for his warning. He knew his outburst at the campground revealed much about his frame of mind. He understood that even though Dobey wouldn’t deny him the arrest, he was worried about how Hutch would handle it. Deep down, Hutch was worried, too. He remembered the rage when he had Gunther in front of him.
The little one–floor ranch–style house was situated on a postage–stamp–sized piece of sod overrun with weeds. The walkway was crumbling and the stucco siding was in dire need of paint. The rusty screen door screeched when Hutch opened it. He used his gun to tap on the inside door.
“Who is it?” came an annoyed voice, but the door didn’t open.
Hutch could hear a ballgame on the TV inside. “Police, we need to talk to you!” He was acutely aware of the empty space next to him where his partner should be. He tightened the grip on his gun.
No answer came back except banging and scuffling about.
He tapped the door again. “I said police, open up!” Hutch shouted this time.
Again, no answer. Then Hutch recognized the sounds of the back door being slammed. Knowing there was a team backing him up in front, he ran to the back of the house. As expected, the guy had tried to sneak out the back but the detectives in the back yard were ready. He didn’t even get to the edge of the property before they had him face down in the weeds. Hutch caught up with them. One held the suspect down with his knee while handing Hutch the cuffs.
“Here, Hutch,” he said, “you do the honors. For Starsky.”
Hutch holstered his gun and took the cuffs. Dobey came up behind him. Everyone grew silent. Starsky’s absence was never more obvious than at this moment. Seemed like everyone felt it, too. Not just because Starsky wasn’t there, but because he may never be again, because Starsky was one of their own, and a hit on one was a hit on everyone. And because the man in front of them was responsible.
Everything he and Starsky had been through in the last week burned inside Hutch, boiling in the depths of his being, threatening to erupt as he cuffed the guy and yanked him up onto his feet. Hutch struggled for control but felt it slipping.
“Why’d you try to run?” he demanded, locking eyes with his prisoner. As he did so, Hutch realized he recognized the man. He had seen his face in that car that day. He didn’t think so before now, it had all happened so fast, but he had. And all at once it hit him, powerful, undeniable. This was the man firing the gun out the car window, the one who actually pulled the trigger.
This was the man who had tried to take everything from him. This was the man who tried to kill Starsky. Hutch saw the truth in his eyes. It was solid. It was real. He was choking so hard on the anger he could hardly breathe.
And then, without warning, everything shifted, everything changed. Because this man tried to kill Starsky, but he didn’t. Starsky was still alive. Starsky should have died, but he hadn’t. Starsky was here. And Hutch still had everything. The anger that had been building suddenly dissipated as he appreciated that fact. He…still…had…everything. And that was really the only thing that mattered.
Without another word, Hutch handed the guy over to Dobey and turned away. He heard Dobey read him his rights as he walked slowly back to the car.
Apprehending Starsky’s would–be killer changed Hutch’s perspective entirely. During the hours of processing and paperwork following the arrest, Hutch pondered his unexpected reaction.
Hutch knew there was a very thin line between revenge and justice. Despite nearly uncontrollable surges of rage in the hospital garage and in arresting Gunther, he’d teetered, but managed not to cross it. He didn’t this time, either. The reason was completely different though. The control came not from some deep moral sense of right and wrong. It came simply from the knowledge that Starsky’s being alive gave him too much to be thankful for to be consumed by rage over what he’d only almost lost. He still had what was most important to him. He still had Starsky. It didn’t make sense to go and lose himself.
He needed to get back to Starsky. And he knew he was going to stay.
It was late evening by the time Hutch reached the hospital again. Starsky’s room was dark and quiet. Hutch stood looking at Starsky a long while as he slept. Letting go of the destructive emotions he’d been carrying all week allowed him see Starsky more clearly. Sleeping and not moving weren’t negatives at all. Every hour Starsky was still and quiet was another hour his body could heal. And it was comforting to know that if he was sleeping there was no pain.
He sat down and began to talk. He wanted to tell Starsky everything. He decided it didn’t matter if Starsky heard or understood. He would tell him anyway. What happened was too important to them both. Besides, no matter what, Starsky was still his partner. Always would be.
He’d gotten only a few sentences into the story when he heard the most beautiful sound ever.
Barely audible, but it was there, the first word Starsky had said in a week and, again, it was his name. Only this time, it wasn’t said with the fear and desperation of a man about to die. This time, it was said with the relief and love of a man who would survive. It was, next to Starsky emerging from the coma, the happiest moment of Hutch’s life.
“Hey, I’m here. Oh, God, it’s so good to hear your voice, Starsk.”
This time Starsky stayed awake. He raised his own hand asking for Hutch’s. Hutch gave it to him and began the gentle caress of his thumb on the back of Starsky’s hand. They had an entire conversation with their eyes. Hutch noticed Starsky’s hand was cooler, the relentless fever was finally lowering and the look in Starsky’s eyes was not pain… for the moment, anyway. There’d be a long road of recovery ahead and things wouldn’t be easy, but Starsky was here.
“I was hoping to get to talk to you,” Hutch said. “I have so much to tell you, Starsk.”
Starsky was alive and that was all that mattered. Letting go of everything else let the warmth of that sink in.