In Too Deep
Snuggled deep in his arms was his best friend, his partner and now his lover. Hutch was so in awe of the man his breath would almost stop at the sight of him. This early morning was no different. An angel, a devil and a prince all rolled into one was the center of his world.
A Friday night of celebration turned into a weekend of blissful happiness. Starsky was back to a job he loved and at times hated. Hutch expected his partner to walk away from a career which had brought so much pain, but his determination to be what he was before knew no bounds. Against the odds, against the predictions of two physicians, Starsky had recovered from his near-fatal shooting.
Here he lay, almost six months later, recovered, healthy, fit and alive. Hutch smiled in relief. It mattered not if Starsky remained a cop. Even if he had gone to New York to run his mother’s bakery, Hutch would have followed without a second thought.
So thankful for what he held in his arms, Hutch leaned in and gave Starsky a gentle whisper of a kiss. The eyes opened and were filled with contentment.
“At least wait ‘til I brush my teeth.”
“You taste good no matter what time of day it is.” To prove his point, Hutch tasted Starsky’s lips and slipped his tongue inside. The strong essence was in Starsky’s mouth and Hutch took his time exploring. It still seemed so new after sharing their first kiss two days ago.
When Hutch finished, Starsky’s contentment was known with a soft sigh. “We need a honeymoon.”
“Didn’t we have two days worth?” Hutch wanted to laugh, but grinned instead.
“Not enough. Five—six days at least…maybe even two weeks.” Starsky brushed Hutch’s hair back with his fingers. “A trip up the coast or even to Mexico would be at the top of my list.”
“Sounds good, partner.” As Hutch ran his hand over Starsky’s chest he knew he would never get enough of him. Starsky was life and Hutch loved him. “But if we don’t get a move on, Dobey will have us busted down to rookies on our first day back.”
It was Starsky’s first day back. Hutch had continued working, but the way he said ‘our’ formed warm butterflies in his stomach. “Calling in sick is good idea.”
Hutch pushed up from the bed and took Starsky’s hand. He pulled him to his feet. “Your shower is big enough for two. What do you say?”
Needing no other encouragement, Starsky led the way and in less than a minute both men were under the hot water lathering each other’s bodies. It was a new form of exploration and discovery. Afterwards, they dried each other off and dressed.
Hutch walked into the squadroom with unwavering satisfaction. It would never dissipate. His partner was at his side, a new relationship between them had only expanded the love he felt and the future was as bright as the top of a snow-capped mountain.
He studied Starsky for the rest of the day. Even with their banter more playful than usual, Hutch was keenly aware of the fragility of life. How close they came to losing it all was foremost in his mind. One day at a time, he told himself.
At the end of an eventless day, both men headed to Huggy’s. Once inside, they ate and made secret bets while playing pool. Starsky wore a smug look on his face as he sauntered back to the table. “Just you wait, Hutch. You’ll be paying up in spades tonight.”
I hope so. “You scratched on the eight.”
Starsky picked up his jacket and slung it over his shoulder. “You bumped the table. If I didn’t know better I’d say someone threw the game.”
The warmth surged to his cheeks and Hutch shook his head. “In your dreams, Sleeping Beauty.”
Even if Hutch wouldn’t admit it, Starsky knew better. He knew Hutch knew. The beautiful blond was a sly one and Starsky loved being in Hutch’s bed. He winked at him. “In half an hour we’ll see about that.”
Starsky took a quick walk out of the bar hoping he wasn’t too obvious. Hutch could read him too well. He got into his car and after closing the door, he closed his eyes. The memory of the morning kiss came back. The familiar Hutch scent, his gentle touch and the love in his eyes became as real as when it had happened. A moment like that could happen only once in a life time and Starsky would relish it for the rest of his days. What would it be like to have a thousand, Starsky wondered.
When Starsky arrived at his apartment, he hurried to pack a small bag. He hustled back to the car and began the drive to Hutch’s. He was reaching to turn off the police radio when a call came over.
“Attention all units…report of a woman screaming on the corner of Bancroft and Hendricks.”
Just a few blocks away. Starsky picked up the mic. “This is Zebra Three. I’ll take it.”
“Starsky, you’re off duty.”
“I’m close. Just get me some back-up.” He started to set the microphone down and thought better of it. “Mildred, Hutch is expecting me at his place. Let him know I’ll be a little late.”
“10-4 Zebra Three.”
Starsky turned the corner and saw no activity. It was almost midnight and when he came upon the location of the report, he slowed. The street had only one light and looked lonely in the night. Starsky wasn’t about to get out of his car when he was alone. It was too dangerous.
He saw a patrol car coming in his direction and flashed his light. They pulled next to each other. “Anything?”
The young patrolman shook his head. “No, Sarge.”
With another look around, Starsky eyed the alley. “Let’s go check the alley. It’s probably just a prank call.”
The cars were parked and Starsky grabbed his flashlight. They started down the alley. It was desolate and dark. It was enough to rattle most cops and even more so the inexperienced officer. Starsky glanced over and saw the cop put a nervous hand over his revolver.
They covered the entire alley, but found nothing. On their way back, Starsky decided to turn on the flashlight. He moved it along the walls and when they were halfway, he stopped. Starsky went to the bloody pile on the ground. It was a disgusting mix of unrecognizable gore.
The stench was overpowering and the cop stepped back. “What is it?”
Starsky ignored the rotten smell and kneeled down. “I’m not sure. It may be human…maybe not.” He heard the gagging in the patrolman’s voice and looked up. The pale face was enough. “Go call it in. The criminalists can handle this one.”
The officer was glad to get away and Starsky smiled a little. He turned his attention back to pile of innards. He moved the flashlight around the area looking for more evidence. He saw a small drop of blood and then another. Starsky stood and began following the trail.
It stopped near the backdoor of one of the buildings. He glanced over his shoulder at the police officer throwing up near his cruiser. Starsky sighed and turned. He was about ready to call out when he heard the door. Just as he turned back, he was grabbed and yanked inside.
As soon as Hutch got the call he raced to the scene of the crime. It was filled with police cars and after parking he made his way down the alley. Captain Dobey was already there. “What happened?”
“Anonymous report of a woman screaming. Starsky answered since he was in the vicinity.” There was little Dobey could do to reassure Hutch.
Hutch rubbed his chin, then his eyes. “What’d they find?”
Dobey directed Hutch over to the unrecognizable bloody mess. “This. The best we can figure is Starsky followed a blood trail.” He pointed to the door. “It looks like that’s where he was taken.”
Hutch’s eyes followed the trail of drops and he moved to the door. “What’s inside?”
“I’ve got a team inside right now.” When Hutch started to pull his gun, Dobey grabbed his arm. “Let them do their job, Hutch.”
“Captain!” Hutch yelled. Then he saw the look in Dobey’s eyes. The firmness in them told Hutch there was no budging. He also knew he was right. Hutch took an unsteady breath and nodded.
Less than a minute had passed when several cops emerged from the building. One walked over carrying a plastic bag. He held it out and Hutch took it. “Starsky’s coat.” He squeezed it and his fear remained along with hope. “Anything else?”
The experienced cop shook his head. “Came back clean. Maybe the lab boys will find something.”
Hutch was reluctant to give up Starsky’s jacket, but he did. “There’s a hell of a lot of ground to cover. I’ll start pulling our old cases.” He started for his car and stopped at the sight of a young officer leaning against a black and white. “Hey!”
The cop looked up and straightened as Hutch came his way. “Sergeant Hutchinson, if there’s…”
“You were with him, right?” Hutch questioned. Everything from his well-combed brown hair to the crisp uniform spoke to his lack of experience. When the young cop nodded, he continued. “What’s your name?”
“Ronnie Baker, sir.”
“Ronnie Baker, didn’t they teach you in the academy never to leave a fellow cop alone at a scene?”
The accusation was harsh and Baker’s eyes dropped down. “Sergeant Hutchinson, I’m sorry, but…”
“Sorry, doesn’t cut it! A cop’s life is on the line and you don’t walk off!”
Dobey pulled Hutch back. “Enough, Hutchinson! He’s already been reprimanded.”
“He ordered me to call in what he found,” Baker insisted. “I’m sorry, but I did what your partner wanted.”
The fear and the guilt were in every word and in the stance of Ronnie Baker. Hutch could see it. The inexperienced police officer was new enough to not to question the orders of a superior. He ran his hand through his hair before stalking off.
If anything could have kept Hutch out of the middle of this, Dobey would have done it. The ironic tragedy wasn’t lost on him. Starsky had just started back to work and now this. How he and most especially, Hutch, were going to deal he didn’t know. They needed a break and these minute clues had yielded little.
The bitterness in Starsky’s mouth was almost stinging. His throat was sore and as he opened his eyes he knew he had been taken down with chloroform. A loud bump got his attention and he glanced around. He was tied and gagged in the back of a van. The last time he was like this was when Marcus’ goons grabbed him. The cult had fallen apart years ago.
The faces of enemies past filtered through Starsky’s brain, but none seemed reasonable to explain his predicament. Hutch would go through the ones he couldn’t remember.
When the van lurched to a stop, Starsky froze. His eyes went to the doors in the back. He scooted around and positioned himself. With feet raised, Starsky was prepared to fight like hell before he got taken any further.
A rag appeared in front of him and before Starsky could react it was pressed against his nose. He tried to scream, but was muffled by the gag. The fight soon left him and he descended into blackness.
After the bindings were cut from his hands, Starsky’s body was pushed into the confines of a small box and landed with a thump. Shaped as a rectangle, there was just enough room for him to lie on his back. Several glow sticks were thrown in along with a small tape recorder. His berretta was picked up and the magazine pulled out. All but two bullets were removed and then the weapon was placed on Starsky’s abdomen.
The cover was placed over and looking down through the Plexiglas Starsky remained unconscious. Dirt was tossed on top until his face was covered.
“Three hours,” Hutch muttered under his breath. Several stacks of records covered his desk and had found their way onto Starsky’s. He rubbed his eyes and when Dobey’s office door opened, he stood.
Hoping for some sort of break, Hutch looked into Dobey’s eyes and found nothing. He grabbed his cup and headed to the coffee pot.
Dobey walked over and picked up a Styrofoam cup. “The lab results came on the gore. It was dog entrails.”
“Jesus.” Hutch filled Dobey’s cup, before adding coffee to his own. “What about his jacket?”
“Fibers of cloth. There is a small trace of ether.”
Hutch stared down into the black liquid. “They drugged him.”
“Good news is no trace of Starsky’s blood.”
How it was good news, Hutch didn’t know. All it meant was that Starsky didn’t bleed. He couldn’t count the ways it was possible to kill someone without blood loss.
“Huggy’s coming up empty on his end.”
“We’re not giving up, Hutch,” Dobey promised.
Hutch ignored the sound of the doors and went back to his desk. He looked up when he heard Dobey giving orders. Simons and Babcock stood ready and willing.
“Dobey called you?” Hutch set the coffee down.
“Huggy did,” Simons answered. “Got any leads to run down?”
If Starsky knew how well he commanded loyalty and respect, Hutch thought. He pointed to a stack on his partner’s desk. “It’s slow going, but it should give you a good start.”
Babcock reached for them and handed half to his partner. Not another word was said as they went to their desks.
Did I open my eyes? That was Starsky’s first thought when he regained consciousness. It was almost black and he could barely see anything. He raised his head and cursed at hitting his head. He brought his hand up to rub the sore spot, but was met with an immovable wall above him.
He pushed on it and when nothing happened he stopped to catch his breath. Starsky found his gun resting on his stomach. He managed to bring it up in the small space. When he set it aside he found the tape recorder next to him. On the other side were the sticks.
Starsky found the play button on the tape player and pushed. He closed his eyes wondering if this would give him some idea of what the hell was going on.
“Hey, cop.” The voice was low, menacing and without feeling. “You do what cops do. You help people. You chase down the bad guy and play judge. Guess what, cop? You misjudged. You’re going to die.”
A dread began to build up in the pit of Starsky’s stomach. His hand shook as he fumbled for a stick on the other side. He knew what it was and pressed it between his fingers until he heard the crunch. Starsky shook it until it glowed and what he saw brought renewed terror.
Surrounding him on all sides and looking above him was dirt and rocks. How deep he was, he didn’t know. All he knew was that he was buried in the earth and the realization of it broke loose from inside. With a cry he banged his hands against the wall of his coffin. “Hutch!”
Even with only a few short hours passing time moved at a snail’s pace. Hutch had made little headway on the pile of records. Each one needed pinpoint scrutiny and no matter how small the doubt, he followed up on it with phone calls. In some cases, he’d been outright rebuffed. Hutch set aside one more file with tired resignation.
Hutch looked up to see Ronnie Baker in jeans and a t-shirt. “Yes.”
Baker stuck a hand in his pocket. “I want to help.”
“You’re supposed to be off duty.”
“I know, but I couldn’t sit home while…” The words stopped and Baker took a deep breath. “What happened was my fault, Sarge. Just tell me what to do.”
Guilt-filled eyes beseeched his and Hutch nodded. “Square it with Dobey and you can get to work on these records.”
Hutch was about to grab a small stack when he heard a commotion outside the doors of the squadroom. He hurried to the hallway and saw Babcock struggling with a kid no older than twenty.
“What’s going on?” Dobey bellowed.
“He’s a courier, Captain,” Babcock explained. He kept the kid pushed against the wall. “He delivers a manila envelope at the front desk with nothing written on it but ‘station commander’. He won’t give up who sent it.”
“I can’t!” The kid argued. “It’s my job if I give up names and addresses whenever anyone asks.”
Hutch stepped forward. “Where is it?”
Simons held it out and Hutch took it. He checked out the front and back. “I’ll take it to the lab.”
Dobey nodded and looked to Babcock. “You and your partner take the kid to this courier service. Get an address and check it out.” Dobey and Baker followed Hutch down the stairs to the basement.
When they arrived, Lucy Belkins was at her desk watching a candle burn. She held up her hand which stopped them in their tracks. In the other was a stop watch. The flame flickered and put itself out leaving a stream of smoke rising into the air. Lucy stopped the clock on the watch and scribbled down the time.
Hutch used to make jokes about her twenty year old glasses. She was only twenty-four, but the pink rimmed glasses with fake diamond studs around the eye pieces made her look at least five years older. She was still the smartest person he knew. He held up the envelope. “I need fingerprints.”
Lucy got to her feet, adjusted her lab coat and took it. She went to her lab with Hutch, Dobey and Baker following. After slipping the surgical gloves on, she carefully opened it and with care pulled out a single sheet of paper. “Non-descript type.”
Hutch looked over her shoulder and scanned the instructions. “What is it?”
“Directions and signal frequency for video hook-up.” Lucy motioned to a lab tech and handed off the paper. She headed out the door and didn’t even look back. The three men were still behind her.
“Video hook-up for what?” Baker asked.
“Maybe more instructions,” Hutch told him. No one responded. It could very well be worse.
Lucy pushed open the heavy door and went to the large counter to look at a variety of electronic equipment. It took a few minutes to find the signal and she clicked her tongue in frustration. “They’re using radio and TV antennas to run the feed.”
She reached over and turned on the small TV. At first it was hard to see. Hutch saw something move and he got closer. “What the hell is this?”
The sudden light on the screen made it too bright, but after Lucy made some adjustments it became clearer of what they were looking at. The room stilled with no one making a sound. The sight was too painful for words to be expressed.
Hutch found a chair and he slumped down. He leaned forward and touched the screen. Lying in a glass encased coffin was Starsky. It was obvious what had happened. The words stuck in his throat.
“My God,” Dobey breathed. “He’s been buried alive.”
“Starsk,” Hutch whispered. The untold fear in his gut spread as he watched Starsky move around and the limited motions told him how tight of a space his partner was in. There was barely enough to move an arm. He could see the perspiration on Starsky’s face.
It took everything Hutch had to hold it together. He needed to talk to him…let him know that he was with him. Starsky had to know. He prayed he did with the light on.
As they watched their friend in the coffin, Lucy moved to the desk. She grabbed a pencil and scribbled numbers. It only took a moment to come up with a number. “Given the size and space, if he evens his breathing and keeps his head, with a generator he may have twenty four hours…give or take.”
“They want something,” Hutch said. His eyes never left Starsky. “They wouldn’t go to all this trouble for nothing.”
“But what?” Baker asked. Starsky and Hutch had made plenty of enemies over the years. He knew the history. It didn’t make sense to him. “How’d they know he was going to be there?”
“Damn good question,” Dobey stated. “Starsky was off duty.”
Hutch rose from the chair and tore his eyes away from the screen. He looked at Dobey. “They didn’t know. They needed a cop. They didn’t care which one they got.” He turned to Lucy. “Can you trace the signal to Starsky’s location?”
“It’ll take some time, Hutch. These things aren’t easy to isolate.”
Baker swung around. “It’s gone!”
Everyone turned at the sound of Baker’s voice to see the TV signal gone. “Was it live?” Dobey asked.
“I believe so.” Lucy turned the knob and adjusted another. “Give me a few minutes.”
The waiting was agonizing and Hutch paced the length of the room. He turned to the TV and willed the picture to return. It took another five minutes and when it returned everyone breathed a sigh of relief.
“This is one slick set-up.” The tone of Lucy’s voice was one of almost admiration. “It’s on some sort of timer and when it’s done, the signal jumps to another antenna.”
Hutch moved to the TV and planted his hands on the table in front of it. His eyes were fixed on Starsky. His head was turned away from the bright light. “How long until you can trace the signal?”
“At this rate, it’s so hard to say.” Lucy took off her glasses. “If it stayed with one antenna we could nail it down to a radius of a few miles, but this complicates it even more. Given how many this town has it could take at least a day…maybe two.”
The news was hard to digest. “Lucy, what sort of equipment would someone need to pull it off?”
“What we’ve got here. Anyone with access to a library, Radio Shack and half a brain could put it together. Making it this difficult was ingenious on their part.”
With his eyes still on Starsky, Hutch moved to his seat. “I’ll do most of my work here.” He glanced at Baker. “Start canvassing electronic stories. Get a list of the equipment and see if anyone’s made large purposes.”
“Sarge,” Baker said.
“It’s a long shot, but all we’ve got.” Hutch wanted to touch the screen again.
After Baker left, Dobey moved closer to Hutch. “We’ll find him, Hutch. We won’t stop until we do.”
Lucy sat on a nearby stool and picked up the telephone. “I need a map of the city marking all TV and radio antennas…thanks.”
When she hung up the phone Dobey had already left. Hutch’s back was to her and she felt like an invader to a private moment. “I’ll stay here as much as I can, Hutch. When I’m not, someone else will be here who knows how to find the signal.”
“The light needs to be kept on,” Hutch said in a low voice. “He needs to know he’s not alone.”
Closing his eyes didn’t seem to block out enough light. It was so bright…almost blinding. Starsky was growing tired and when the bulb went out he found relief enough to start to fall asleep. Just when he was growing comfortable, the light would flash on keeping him awake. He cursed a few times.
It took some effort, but he got his hand up near his face and with an awkward slant of his head, Starsky saw the time on his watch. Six hours had passed since he was supposed to be at Hutch’s.
As long as Hutch stays busy with the search he’ll be okay, Starsky thought. Otherwise, his partner would little by little go crazy. Hutch would tear apart the planet looking for him. Starsky had every reason to hope.
It dawned on him he had yet to check his weapon. Starsky picked it up and popped the magazine out. Two bullets were all that remained. He shut his eyes. If someone had lost all hope they could take their life rather than die of prolonged suffering.
Not me, he swore. He wasn’t giving in to anyone…most especially to death. He fought it once before and he would do it again.
When Baker walked into the room, Hutch still sat transfixed in front of the television. It was a tragic scene. There was little anyone could do at this point. He carried the sack and Styrofoam cup in and set them in front of Hutch.
Hutch rubbed his eyes. “What’s this?”
“I figured you wouldn’t budge so I brought you a sandwich and some coffee.”
“I’ll take the coffee.” Hutch reached for the cup and looked at Baker. “Thanks.”
“How is he?”
Hutch looked at Starsky who had closed his eyes. “He’s trying to sleep. He hates having a light on when he’s tired.”
“He’s holding his own it looks like,” Baker observed.
“Right before he was….” Hutch took an uneasy drink of coffee. “We went to Huggy’s and he had a full meal. I just wished he had drunk some water rather than beer.”
Baker knew how crazy the comment sounded, but didn’t voice it. “Sarge, I did find a small electronics store where a large purpose for this kind of equipment was made a week ago.”
“The salesman remembered it was a cash sale. It was one of his largest commissions. He didn’t remember much about what the buyer looked like. He’s upstairs working with a sketch artist, but his memory is vague.”
It wasn’t very hopeful and Hutch’s eyes went to Starsky. “Keep looking. There may be others.”
“I will, Sarge,” Baker promised.
“Call me Hutch.”
Were it not for the circumstances, Baker would have smiled. The guilt remained and he knew it always would. He admired both Starsky and Hutch. They were veteran cops who had made a real difference and he could only hope to even come close in his chosen career.
Both men grew alarmed when the light went off. They stood and Baker’s eyes went to the tech who was searching for the signal. Agonizing minute after minute went by and the picture returned. Less than a second passed and the light came on.
Hutch winced at the growing frustration on Starsky’s face. He watched him turn his head once again.
The air had stopped. It didn’t take Starsky long to realize that when the light came on, the fan stopped blowing. Not only did the light hurt his eyes, but it stole much needed air.
He felt around near his side and his hand found his gun. Starsky brought it up to his chest. It was so hard to breathe and move. He knew he would die just from the small amount of effort to take in a lung full of air.
Hutch stiffened when he saw Starsky move the weapon to his chest. He didn’t even realize he was standing until he stole a look at Baker.
“What’s he doing?”
The alarm in Baker’s voice tore into Hutch. He was wondering the same thing and his heart pounded in his chest when Starsky pulled the hammer back.
“No, Starsk,” Hutch whispered. He shook his head. “It’s too soon.” The barrel lay just under Starsky’s chin and Hutch gripped the table. “Goddamn it, I said no!”
Everyone was startled when Starsky aimed the gun towards the camera and fired. The light was gone, but the darkened figure of Starsky was still visible. Hutch breathed a heavy sigh of relief and collapsed in his seat. “Damn it, Starsk. Quit scaring the hell out of me.”
It was a small victory in Starsky’s mind. He set the gun aside and turned his head to breathe in the much needed air. He laughed. “Son of a bitch.” He hated the light.
What he didn’t see was the small trail of dirt falling to the bottom of the Plexiglas coffin.
Lucy came into the room and after being told what happened just moments ago, she went to the TV and studied Starsky. “I’ll be damned.”
“What?” Hutch asked.
“See how his head is turned?” At Hutch’s nod, she continued. “He does that a lot when the light’s off. I bet that’s where he gets his air. It was designed to shut off with the light on.”
“Can’t generators handle both light and oxygen?” Baker asked.
Hutch rubbed his eyes then leaned forward. “We’re dealing with a twisted bastard. He wants Starsky to suffer along with the rest of us who are watching.”
Lucy wanted to comfort Hutch, but wasn’t quite sure how. She pushed her glasses up farther on her nose. “No prints on the instructions, Hutch. It was clean. The best I can do is have the type ran down. We might be able to identify the typewriter that was used.”
No words would come and Hutch could only touch the cold glass of the TV. His heart tore at Starsky struggling to hang on and suffering in the coffin. How could he fight this? He needed to do something more than just sitting and watching Starsky die.
Dobey stood in the doorway. “Babcock and Simons came up empty on the address. A dry cleaning clerk lives there and didn’t know a thing. He’s got an alibi.”
Hutch lowered his head and took a deep breath. With each passing bit of information, Starsky’s outlook grew dimmer. He barely heard the ringing of the phone and Dobey speaking into it.
“Another envelope’s been delivered.”
They all shot out of the room and hurried down the hallway where they were met with a police officer escorting a young girl. Hutch took the envelope from her and handed it to Lucy. He still hoped for at least a print.
She led the way to the lab and after putting on gloves, Lucy was careful as she slid the paper out. Hutch peered over her shoulder and read. “Damn,” he said. He looked at Dobey and Baker. “One million dollars or the cop dies,” Hutch read.
“Anything else?” Dobey asked as he walked over.
Lucy shook her head. “Detailed instructions will follow in six hours.”
“So they can drop the delivery information on us with no notice. No time to plan.” Dobey ran his hand over his face.
Half an hour later, Hutch was pacing in front of Dobey’s desk. The latest news was devastating, but not shocking. Hutch was ready to fight it.
“If there was more I could do, Hutch, you know I would.”
“It’s not good enough, Captain.” Hutch’s tone was forceful. He stopped and looked down at Dobey. “This is Starsky’s life we’re talking about.”
“Don’t you think I know that?” Dobey got to his feet. “I shouldn’t have to tell you anything you don’t already know! This department is not about to give in to terrorist demands!”
“And you’re willing to give up Starsky’s life to make your point, aren’t you?”
“Damn it, Hutch! I love Starsky, too, but we can’t do it and you know it!”
“What I know is that my partner is dying and you’re tying my hands!”
“And we pay it. Then what?” Dobey demanded. “Every cop becomes a target for every asshole that wants to make a few bucks!”
“Don’t talk to me about the big picture!” Hutch yelled back. “Starsky’s too damn good of a cop to let go of!”
The intensity in Hutch’s eyes was enough for Dobey to relax. The tension written on his face was enough of an indicator of the strenuous hold Hutch had onto his sanity. Dobey wished Hutch would go home and take a break, but to even suggest it was out of line. He sat back down. “This thing could still break, Hutch. We’re checking every possible lead.”
Hutch leaned forward and planted his hands on Dobey’s desk. “This is the best lead we’ve got, Captain. I can at least try bluffing him.”
“You’d be walking into suicide. Once this bastard sees there is no money, he’d take you out.”
“You’re not giving me any options.”
Dobey’s face was somber and he looked Hutch in the eye. “I’ll give you all I can.”
Not satisfied with the answers he’d been given Hutch stormed out of the office and slammed the door shut behind him. He stood near Starsky’s desk and contemplated how far he should go. He didn’t care.
Hutch marched out of the squadroom past Baker into the hallway. He got to his car and drove home. Once there he picked up the telephone and carried it into the kitchen. He picked up the receiver and the bottle of scotch on the counter caught his eye. He considered getting a drink to calm his already stretched nerves, but changed his mind. Liquor was the last thing he needed.
As he dialed the number Hutch moved to the couch and sat. It was answered after two rings. “Alice, its Ken Hutchinson. Is he busy?…Thanks.”
Exhaustion was upon him and Hutch rubbed his eyes. He made a mental note to pick up coffee on his way back to the station.
“Ken? This is a surprise.”
“Yeah, Dad. I needed to talk to you.”
“Sounds serious, son. What is it?”
Hutch swallowed the lump in his throat. “It’s Starsky. He was kidnapped.” The words were harder to get out than he expected.
“My, God. When?”
“Late last night.”
He rested his head on his hand as he remembered the difficult call. “Nicky’s with her.”
“I’ll be sure to call her.”
“Dad, I need your help.”
“I’ll do what I can, son.”
Hutch licked his dry lips. “They want a million dollars.”
There was a hesitation from the other end of the line. “That’s a hell of a lot of money.”
“Starsky’s buried alive, Dad, and if they aren’t paid, he’ll die.”
“Even with it paid…” Hutch closed his eyes and was thankful his father didn’t finish the horrible thought.
“The brass refuses to consider it and bluffing the kidnapper is out of the question.”
“It’s too dangerous, Ken. I shouldn’t have to tell you it sets bad precedence by giving in to demands to people like this.”
“This isn’t the state department, Dad!” Hutch ran his hand across his face. “I didn’t mean to yell.”
“It’s okay, son.” The voice was soothing and Hutch’s comfort small.
“Dad.” Hutch hesitated. He was about to play dirty and hoped his father would understand the desperation. “If Katy, Mom or me…if it was us…you’d pay.” Hutch wiped a small tear away. “Wouldn’t you?”
“If one of us was buried alive like Starsky is…in a makeshift coffin…you’d give them whatever the hell they wanted.”
The sobering statement hung between them for almost an eternity it seemed. Hutch prayed. Rarely did he ever, but in as many years as he could remember, he did.
“Yes, I would, Ken. If it meant you, your sister or your mother’s life, I would pay whatever is necessary.”
“Dad, I’m in that coffin right now.” Hutch lowered his head and closed his eyes. “It’s the only way I can describe it. It’s where I am and I need you’re help.”
Another pause, yet much briefer than before. “It’ll take a few hours. I’ll call your bank and work out the details.”
“I know what to do.”
Hutch could almost breathe. He would when Starsky was out of the woods. “Thank you, Dad.”
“Just bring him home safe.”
After hanging up the phone, Hutch covered his eyes. He almost cried at that point, but sucked it inside. He had to keep his head. Hutch dialed another number. “Huggy…it’s Hutch…I need you to do something.”
It seemed like all Hutch did was wait. The nerve-wracking insanity kept him on edge. He went to the lab and found Lucy working on a map of the antennas the signal was using.
“I’m only half finished.” Lucy took off the funny glasses and rubbed her eyes. “I wish I had more for you, Hutch.”
“It looks like it covers a large area.”
“It probably will. If the signal were to use the same antennas as before it would narrow the search considerably.”
“Keep it up, Lucy.” Hutch gave her shoulder a reassuring squeeze. He left and went to electronics. Seeing Starsky on the screen was almost reassuring. He was alive and as long as he was, Hutch had hope. Starsky had hope, too.
“I got it.”
Hutch turned to see Baker walking in with a large leather bag. He took it from him. “Any trouble?”
Baker shook his head. “Huggy Bear said the bank manager almost called security until your father gave his approval.”
“Thanks. Lucy has made some headway. Get some patrols out to scavenge what she has. It’s a long shot, but maybe they’ll find something.”
When Hutch left, Baker crossed the hall and into the room. Lucy was hunched over the map. He was almost hesitant to disturb her.
“Did Hutch send you in here?”
Baker was surprised she knew it was him. He stepped forward. “He wanted me to get what you have so far out to some patrols.”
She straightened and smiled a little. “Sounds like he’s delegating you to do some delegating.”
In most circumstances Baker would have been thrilled, but not this time. “Probably more like a reminder.”
“You were with Starsky?” When he nodded, Lucy reached for the notebook on the table. She flipped it open and started writing. “An unfortunate side effect of the profession.”
“What are you talking about?”
Lucy tore off a sheet of paper and handed it to him. “My dad was a cop for twenty-seven years. When I became one he told me that what we do will almost always cost someone their life whether they’re a perp or an innocent.”
Baker started for the door unsure of how to take Lucy’s words.
When Hutch set the leather satchel on his desk, Dobey knew what it was. He knew where it came from as well. “You can’t be associated with this, Hutchinson. It can’t look like the department’s paying off kidnappers.”
“I didn’t bring it. Consider it an anonymous donor.”
Dobey stood and opened up the bag. He stared down at the obscene amount of money. “You’ll wear a wire and the bag will be fitted with a tracking device.”
“Captain,” Hutch began.
“I don’t give a damn how smart this person is, you’re going beyond the prevue of the department and you’ll be covered.” Dobey snapped the bag shut. “The brass will accept either this or my resignation.”
Hutch nodded. His captain had gone as far as he could. The second set of instructions arrived and with less than an hour Baker and Hutch left. Baker sat behind the wheel of the car and pulled in behind an old pickup.
Baker’s eyes were downcast and Hutch clenched the satchel. “You’ve done a good job, Baker.”
Hutch stepped out of the car and got in the truck. It had been years since he’d been behind the wheel of a standard. He put the vehicle in gear and started down the street.
As he drove, Hutch remembered their first meeting. Huggy had known both of them and made the introductions. The connection was instantaneous and it didn’t take long for them to walk the same path of life together. Since then each other’s life belonged to the other.
He had no idea if paying off a kidnapper was the right move or not. People would forever be debating the issue. Who does it serve to pay for someone’s life? Hutch had heard the stories. Kidnappers were notoriously brutal and rather than risk a witness they killed their victim.
The old abandoned airport came into sight and the kidnapper’s choice was obvious. It was out of the way and in the middle of nowhere. There were few places to hide. He parked near the door and took a deep breath before getting out.
Hutch gripped the bag and it seemed to feel heavier than before. He went through the door and into a musty room filled with dust floating on the air. It stung his eyes. Hutch continued moving forward past a dirt-covered van.
He tried to focus his vision on the figure standing at the far end of the decrepit hanger. There was just enough light to tell it was an older man in his fifties. He looks three or four inches shorter than me, Hutch thought. He took a picture with his mind and locked it to memory.
“Where is he?”
The laugh was low. “Eager, aren’t you?”
“I’ve got the money.” The man was overweight. That much Hutch could tell. Even with a jacket on, it did little to hide the thick waist.
“Slide it over.”
Hutch was almost hesitant to do it. “I want my partner.”
“I wondered if he had one since he wasn’t wearing a uniform.” The man motioned for the bag. “Bag first.”
He set it down and pushed on it with his foot. It slid almost to the kidnapper who took a step forward to meet it. Hutch watched with unease as the man opened up the bag. A thick wad of bills was picked up.
“I really didn’t think cops would pay even to save one of their own.” He dropped the money into the bag and straightened. “I guess you could say I misjudged.”
The humorous look on the kidnapper’s face puzzled Hutch. “You’ve got your money. Tell me where he is.”
“I got what I wanted.”
Panic was starting to set in and Hutch started to take a step. “Tell me where he is. You can walk away.”
The kidnapper’s low laugh unnerved Hutch to a degree that he was ready to jump. “A cop never lets anyone walk away. One wouldn’t walk in here unless he was wired and the bag was tagged.” His hands went to the collar of his jacket. “You could shoot me, but you know if I’m dead so is the cop.”
“The tracking device is fitted in the buckle.” Hutch’s desperation was growing.
“Better step back.”
Hutch was confused. He didn’t know whether to do as he was told. His eyes widened as the jacket was pulled apart. Strapped to the kidnapper’s chest was explosives. He raised his hand. “No!”
The wire was pulled and the explosion threw Hutch back. He fell to the floor and the wind was knocked from him. It took a few seconds for him to get his breath and when he did he looked at the blood spattered gore all over the room. Body parts were littered all over the place.
He pushed up and ran his hands over his eyes. His hand came away covered with blood. A cry escaped him. “Jesus Christ!” Remnants of Starsky’s kidnapper stuck to his clothes.
How long it took for a team of cops to arrive, Hutch didn’t know. He sat on the floor for several minutes in shock. A touch to his shoulder got his attention and he looked up. Dobey stood over him. “Come on, Hutch.”
With some help, Hutch got to his feet. He looked around at the cops moving around the large room. Lucy was speaking to one of her lab techs. He turned to Dobey. “He never intended to tell us where Starsky is. It wasn’t even about the fucking money!”
“Easy, Hutch.” Dobey put a hand on Hutch’s waist to steady him.
“I’m fine.” Hutch took a deep breath and let it out. “We need to find out who he was. It’s what he said.”
“Hutch, you need to get checked out,” Dobey pressed. “Let the doctor look you over.”
“He said ‘A cop never lets anyone walk away’.”
“You tried to bargain with him.”
Hutch shook his head. “Captain, it meant something. I’m sure of it. It’s a vendetta against a cop or cops who didn’t let him or someone he knows walk away. Maybe even someone who was innocent.”
“It’s still not much to go in.” Dobey was getting tired. Night was now coming on and they had nothing other than the pieces of a body.
“I found something!”
Hutch and Dobey turned to see Baker kneeling down in the corner of a room. They walked over and looked down. Sitting in the dirt was the thumb of a right hand.
Lucy pushed in between them and knelt. “Someone bag this right now.” She stood up to let a tech in and surveyed the hanger. “We might find more. Maybe there’s enough to get a set of prints.”
“Lucy, you might want to come over and look at this.” Lucy walked over to the van where the back doors were opened. She was handed a white plastic bag with a rag in the back. Lucy opened it and took a small whiff. “Ether.”
She glanced at Hutch who was moving forward. Lucy grabbed the florescent light from a nearby lab tech and flipped it on. She took her time in covering the van and slowed at the carpet. A visible impression was illuminated from the blue light.
Careful not to touch anything, Hutch walked closer to the back until he was but a few inches from it. “He was here.”
Starsky’s leg itched. It was just on the inside of his calf and he ached to scratch it. His gut hurt so bad from the lack of food and his mouth dry. He checked his watch again. He almost laughed. Hutch was always teasing him about having accessories to watches he’d never use. More times than not the glow-in-the-dark numbers were beneficial on long stakeouts.
He had to go to the bathroom. Starsky had managed to hold it in for several hours now, but he was starting to hurt. It caused him to question the sanity of holding it in for so long. It could accelerate the potential for a urinary tract infection. Getting sick right now was not an option. Starsky needed to stay healthy at least long enough for Hutch to find him.
There was no question at how distasteful the idea of urinating in this coffin was. There would be an odor and Starsky didn’t want to lie in his own piss. The idea disgusted him.
Damn, I just want to scratch my leg, Starsky wished.
The fatigue on Hutch’s face hurt and Lucy wished she didn’t have to ask, but the choice wasn’t there any longer. She crossed the large hanger. “Hutch, I’ll need your clothes.”
Startled by the request, Hutch looked down. He was a bloody mess. “Yeah, I forgot.”
She squeezed his arm. “When you can. Okay?”
Hutch could only nod. A crash from across the room got their attention. Baker had knocked over several cans with vicious anger. “Damn it!”
The young cop put a hand over his eyes. “It should’ve been me! God, why couldn’t it have been me?”
“Enough!” Hutch yelled.
Baker raised his head and looked at Hutch’s furious face.
“You lock the guilt away right now and that’s an order!”
With a nod, Baker swallowed the lump in his throat. “Yes, sir.”
Lucy started to go to Baker and stopped at Hutch’s voice.
“He’s fine, Lucy. Let him do his job.”
“He’s not fine!” Lucy argued. “Can’t you see what’s wrong with him?”
Hutch started to answer her and his eyes dropped to her feet. The dirt falling in between the cracks of the wooden planks got his attention. He pointed. “Look.”
Her eyes moved down and she saw. “This old place was built over fifty years ago.”
“Get crowbars and shovels!” Hutch kneeled and brushed away the dirt with his hands. “Hang on, Starsk.”
Several people showed up and Hutch grabbed a crowbar. He pried open a floorboard and with some help pulled it away. It took only minutes to remove several pieces of wood. Hutch and Baker jumped into the hole and started digging. Frantic and hopeful, they made quick work of removing the dirt.
Hutch stuck the shovel in and his heart jumped when it hit a solid surface. “Easy now!”
They were more careful as more was shoveled away. When enough was gone, Hutch and Baker kneeled. They swiped the dirt way and cleared enough of a surface to see inside the Plexiglas. Hutch almost cried out. “It’s a dog. A fucking dog!”
He slammed his fists against the container holding the dead animal.
He went through the motions. Hutch picked up a large plastic bag and headed to the old pickup. He got inside and drove home. No thought could penetrate anything. He had failed. Every step he had taken was met with nothing.
When he got home, Hutch stripped off the bloody clothes and shoved them in the plastic bag. He took a mind-numbing cold shower and willed his body to continue even past the exhaustion he was feeling.
Hutch put on his old jeans and the horrible bowling shirt Starsky complained about. Maybe it was a mental hope he could somehow hear his partner’s voice ragging on him. He might hear Starsky offering one of his own shirts.
On the way back to the station, Hutch swung by Starsky’s apartment. As if his partner was on vacation, he picked up the mail, watered the plants and tossed out the leftover salad from four days ago.
Once at the precinct, Hutch headed to the basement and found the electronics section. On the TV was Starsky. He was lying almost too still and Hutch wanted to yell and scream at him to move. The rising and falling of his chest was a relief and Hutch sat down.
He looked up at Baker walking into the room. “Anything else?”
Baker shook his head. “We brought the dog and the case it was in back here. There’s a lab team going over the van. Lucy thinks the kidnapper was testing out the box.”
“Is she still at the scene?”
“She’s in the lab with the case.”
Hutch got up from the chair and they made their way to the lab. The large case was opened and the dog was being removed. Lucy instructed the techs to move the case onto four stands positioned in the middle of the room. She walked around the case and peered inside.
“Did you guys ever watch Columbo?” She didn’t wait for an answer. “He’s the reason why I got into this business. One show was really good. This murderer really believed he had outsmarted everyone. He had turned his motive into a non-motive. There was no physical evidence to tie him to the victim. He hid his cockiness very well.” Lucy slipped on some gloves. She picked up the cotton swab and a vial. “You want to know how Columbo got him?”
She swabbed an area inside the case. “He didn’t wipe the fingerprints off the shell casings.” Lucy put the swab inside the vial and shook her head. “He was the smartest dumb person I’d ever seen. It was an almost amateurish mistake.”
“Lucy,” Hutch said.
Lucy walked over to Hutch and her eyes stayed on him. “I’ve never seen anyone commit the perfect crime. No matter how smart this guy may seem, Hutch, he’ll have made a mistake.”
“I just hope we find it soon.”
The ringing of the telephone got her attention and Lucy answered it. “Lab…sure.” She held out to Hutch. “It’s Dobey.”
Hutch took it. “Yeah, Captain.”
“The thumb print turned a match.”
“I’m on my way.” Hutch hung it up and started out the door. “Come on, Baker.”
Once upstairs, they got to Dobey’s office and Hutch was given a record. “He was Boyd Levinson.”
“He was arrested five years ago on an assault and battery. Seems as though an accountant was cheating him,” Hutch said as he skimmed through the information. “Other than that he’s clean.”
“The arresting officers involved said it was open and shut. They caught him on top of his victim beating the hell out of him. Levinson did a few months and got out. He remained law-abiding.”
Baker was given the file and he sat down to read it. “It says here he’s divorced. Think he has any kids?”
Dobey picked up the phone. “One way to find out.”
Hutch sat down in the chair next to Baker. “This is the best lead we’ve got. Think you can handle it?”
“I figured you’d want it.”
“I want to keep an eye on Starsky.”
“I won’t let you down, Hutch.”
The firmness in his eyes gave Hutch confidence. Baker had proven himself in his eyes.
Dobey hung up the telephone. “He has one son. Andrew Levinson. He’s serving time for accessory to murder.”
“How soon can we talk to him?”
“He’ll be here in an hour.”
Hutch stood. “They’re bringing him?”
The relief came over Hutch and he almost smiled. It was the first sign of a break since the ordeal began. It was going on 24 hours since Starsky’s abduction and time was running out.
He hurried out of the room with Baker close behind. They were almost to the electronics room when Hutch stopped in front of the lab. Lucy was flat on her back underneath the case. She was studying the small indentations carved into the Plexiglas.
“What are you doing?” Baker asked.
Hutch didn’t see anything particularly interesting. “You have something?”
“I don’t know. I’ve never seen anything like it before.”
When she stayed where she was, Hutch and Baker headed to the electronics room. Starsky was still where he was and his head was turned towards the fan. He must be suffocating in the heat that had built up. His t-shirt was drenched in sweat.
Baker went to the small desk and began making calls. As they waited for Andrew Levinson, the signal had to be reacquired three more times. The call came. Hutch and Baker went to the interrogation room where the prisoner waited.
He was younger than Hutch expected. Dark brown hair hung below his collar. His thin frame looked small in the chair. A tattoo was coming out his denim shirt, but was unrecognizable. Looking into the eyes was a hollowed out creature living the harsh life of prison. Hutch was careful in his approach.
“They told you about your father?”
Andrew pushed the hair away from his face. “Anyone got a smoke?”
Hutch glanced at Baker who stepped out of the room. An uncomfortable silence filled the room and it didn’t take long for him to return with a cigarette and matches. They watched Andrew put the smoke in his mouth and fumble with the matches. He took a long drag after lighting it. “Yeah, they told me.”
“They tell you what he did?” Hutch asked.
“He nabbed a cop.” Andrew toyed with the cigarette and his face held a slight smile. “He was a smart son of a bitch.”
With a steadying intake of breath, Hutch got a handle on his raging emotions. “You can help us find him.”
The bitter laugh startled Hutch. Andrew took a drag and blew the smoke out of the side of his mouth. “What the hell makes you think I will? Some sort of guilt?” He shook his head as if Hutch was stupid for asking. “Cops are what put me here. It was cops who figured I was guilty just by being there. Even giving up the guys who did the killing didn’t save me.”
“This cop didn’t do a damn thing to you,” Baker bit out.
“This cop…that cop…fuck you, cop.” Andrew finished off the smoke and tossed it to the floor. He reached up and pulled the shirt aside. A large flower was exposed on the side of his neck leading down below the shirt. “I got this because I’m a bitch. I’m for fucking and not for talking. My old man almost puked when I told him what they did to me.”
Hutch motioned to the uniformed officer at the door. “Get him out of here. We’re done.”
Baker moved to the chair and sat. “Maybe if we had pushed him harder.”
“He wasn’t going to tell us a thing. He’s grown a nice healthy hatred of us in the pen. He had nothing to gain or to lose either way.”
Hutch glanced at his watch and almost groaned. Starsky’s time was almost out. It was now down to a few hours and they were no closer. The door flung open and Babcock’s eyes were wide. “It’s Starsky! Something’s wrong!”
Baker and Hutch bolted out of their seats. They ran down the hallway to the stairs. Hutch pushed past Baker and wound his way through the various officers. Many jumped to get out of the way.
Starsky cried out for Hutch. “Help me! Oh, God, somebody!” He scrambled around the small enclosure struggling for some way of relieving the intense pain. There was no way to stop it and it continued to build the more he moved. “Hutch!” He broke out in a sob as he thrashed about.
Hutch was wide-eyed as he watched Starsky’s frantic movements. He couldn’t tell in the darkness what it was that had gotten his partner so panicked. “Starsky, slow down,” Hutch whispered.
There was something. It was hard to see and Hutch leaned towards the screen. He saw what he thought was dirt next to Starsky’s hand. It didn’t take long to realize what it was. “Christ,” Hutch breathed. “It’s ants. They must’ve got in through the bullet hole he made.”
“They’re eating him alive,” Baker said. It was painful to watch.
Helpless, Hutch wished to God he could switch places with Starsky. He could only watch his lover’s futile struggle with the tiny pests. He watched Starsky stick a hand in his pocket and search for something. Hutch was surprised to see him pull out a small package of gum.
Starsky crammed to pieces in his mouth and chewed. After less than a minute he spit it out and tore it in two pieces. “Starsky, what are you doing?” Hutch asked aloud.
He was amazed to watch his partner stick the pieces in his ears. The wrappers were then placed in Starsky’s nose. “Good, Starsk. Good.”
Baker was confused when he watched and looked at Hutch. He turned his attention back to Starsky who had straightened and proceeded to take relaxing breaths through his clenched teeth.
“What’s he doing?”
“He’s being as still as possible. They won’t bite…as much.” A few ants scurried across the camera and Hutch was amazed at the detail. He looked at the tech. “Can you get a picture of one of them?”
“Give me a minute.”
“What for?” Baker asked.
“These ants look different. They’re not like the ones you’d normally find.” Hutch went to the tech who pulled the photo out of the copier. He left and found Lucy under the case taking samples from the indentations. “I need an entomologist.”
She scooted out and Hutch handed off the photo. “These aren’t from around here.”
When she darted out of the room, Hutch followed. He walked into her office and she was searching through a stack of books piled on a bookshelf. She pulled a large volume out and opened it up. “I’ve seen these.”
He was patient as she flipped through the pages. Various pictures of ants jumped out and she finally stopped on one. Lucy set the picture next to it. “Fire ants. They’re not indigenous and make their nests at garden centers and green houses.”
“Are you sure about that?” Baker asked from the doorway.
“The soil is the only place where they could thrive uninterrupted.” Lucy left the room and headed to the electronics room. She tossed a phone book to Baker and went to the map on the wall. The large circle was almost complete. “We might be able to narrow it down to just a few.”
Lucy and Hutch turned to see Baker run out of the room. He returned a minute later with an open record. “I just remembered. Right before Andrew Levinson was put away he worked at a garden center.”
Baker stepped forward and put his finger on the map almost in the middle of the circle. “That’s the place.”
Hutch grabbed Baker by the shirt and they ran from the room. They got to the car in record time and as Hutch drove, Baker reported everything to Dobey over the car radio.
The fan had given out. The air was putrid, thick and with each breath less than the one before it. The ants were in every crevice of Starsky’s body and still moving over him. He could feel them moving in his hair and on his face biting into the tender skin. The urge to brush them off was as overwhelming as anything he’d ever known.
With his eyes closed he could see his flag-draped coffin being moved into a synagogue. Hutch stood with his mother and brother. They commented on how well he looked and the peacefulness on his face. Somewhere in his imagination a female blond matching Hutch moved next to his partner. Starsky could hear the words of the minister pronouncing them husband and wife.
He opened one eye and from his coffin he watched them kissing. When they turned to look at him, Starsky closed it.
An ant was caught in the folds of his eye and the sting painful. Starsky groaned in agony and sought to further relax himself from the assault. When nothing happened to slow down the attacks, he brought his hands up and brushed off the ants from his face.
Starsky took the opportunity to look at his watch. With no fresh air coming, his time was coming to an end. Hot tears formed in the corners of his eyes and when Starsky placed his hands at his side, he felt the gun. One bullet left, Starsky remembered.
He clenched the weapon and brought it to his chest. The thought entered his pain-filled mind and he cried. “Hutch, where are you? Not like this, God, not like this!”
By the time they arrived at the garden center several police cars were following along with an ambulance and the fire department. Hutch drove to the back and parked the car. When he and Baker got out of the car they were met with a security guard.
“Not many people go back there.” He held out a flashlight and Hutch took it.
“Anyone in the last few days?” Hutch asked.
“I don’t know.”
Hutch turned to the large gathering of officers. “Spread out and keep an eye out for freshly overturned dirt. Watch where you step. Look for a generator, too.”
With the orders, they spread out and began canvassing the large field. Hutch walked along the trail for a short time before veering off in another direction. He glanced over at Baker who wasn’t too far away.
They walked almost fifty yards with no signs. The trees and the dark night added to the difficulties. Hutch was growing even more impatient as he pushed on. He heard someone call his name and paused long enough for Dobey to catch up. “It could take a couple of hours to search it all.”
“I’ve got more people on the way,” Dobey said.
Hutch moved onward and after five minutes of walking he heard a yell. He and Dobey stopped and looked to their left. “It’s Baker,” Hutch said.
They ran over and found Baker standing near a generator. Hutch’s eyes scanned the area and he saw nothing. He looked at Baker who was on his hands and knees. He had the cord in hand and was following where it led.
They followed until a fresh mound of dirt appeared. Dobey grabbed the radio and called for the ambulance and other vehicles to help. He turned back and saw Hutch drop to his knees and scramble to dig the dirt away with his hands.
Desperate for anything, a sign, Starsky kept the barrel of the weapon turned away. His air was disappearing and with it hope. Over twenty-four hours had passed and there was nothing to indicate he would ever be found. How would anyone know where to look?
All he had was the recording. Starsky set the gun aside and fumbled for the tape recorder. He rewound it and when he was sure it was recording, Starsky spoke. “If anyone finds this tape deliver it to Metropolitan Division. Detective Ken Hutchinson will know what to do with it.” A tear fell out of the corner of his eye. “Ma, you’re the only one that understood how Pop’s dying got to me. You understood me when few people could. Just know I did the best I could and keep an eye on Hutch. He’ll need it. I love him, Ma. Hutch saved me in every way that anybody could be saved. Don’t blame him for not doing it this time. I know he tried his best.”
Starsky shut off the recorder for a moment to get a handle on the cry which threatened to break from him. After a moment, he turned it back on. “Nicky, remember that talk we had while I was in the hospital? Don’t forget it and marry that girl who thinks you’re crazy. If anyone can figure you out like that, they’re the one.” Now for the hard part, Starsky thought. “Hutch…it’s okay. I’m not mad at you for not finding me. You did your best and it’s always been above and beyond. Do me a favor. Don’t quit living because of me. Keep moving on and don’t stop, Hutch. I don’t want you alone either. You can get married, have kids or whatever. All I want is for you to be happy and name one after me…” Starsky stopped and his cry had a bit of laughter in it. “Okay, maybe not married.” More tears fell out of his eyes and trailed down his temples. “What can I say that you don’t already know, Hutch? Can I say how much I love you? I don’t say it enough and I wish I had. Maybe this little bit of posterity will help you never to forget. I lived a life few ever get. I found somebody who took my good and bad both. I’m so damn lucky to have you and to love you. Even if it was only for a few days, Hutch, it was worth a lifetime.”
A thump rattled the coffin and a crack stretched along the side of the Plexiglas up to Starsky’s shoulder. It was breaking. The horror of mounds of dirt caving in on him brought out a cry. Starsky was only minutes from being suffocated by the earth. The tape player dropped from his hand and he reached for the gun.
Lucy stepped away from the microscope and turned her attention to the small case which had held the dog. She grabbed the phone and made a call. “I need a bomb expert in the lab right now.” Lucy rolled her eyes at the response. “I don’t have a bomb…just get someone in here!”
She looked at the case and prayed she was wrong.
They had dug almost four feet already and Hutch refused to stop. He couldn’t. Others had joined in on the task but as the hole got deeper it only left enough for him and Baker to dig. When he hit solid surface, Hutch froze. “Stop!”
He got down to his knees and swiped away at the remaining soil. Hutch had never been so afraid in his life. If this was another fake lead, he knew it was over. There was nothing else to lead him to Starsky.
The dirt above Starsky moved and he couldn’t find the bravery in him to hold back the cry. He brought the gun up and the barrel rested under his chin. What widened his eyes was the hand swiping soil away. When he saw Hutch’s face come into focus, Starsky did cry. “Hutch, oh God, Hutch!”
“Easy, Starsky, I’m here!” Hutch kept pushing the dirt away and bent down to soothe his partner. He saw the gun resting too close to Starsky’s face for comfort. “Put that thing away, buddy. You don’t need it. You hear me?”
Starsky continued to cry and pound away at the Plexiglas covering. Hutch realized the gum was still in his partner’s ears to protect from the onslaught of ants. He spoke louder. “Starsky, listen to me! We’re here and we’re not leaving you! We’ll get you out!”
Even with the reassurance, Starsky sobbed in relief. His hand remained on the Plexiglas where Hutch’s was.
Dobey finished talking with Lucy and turned back to Hutch who was ordering how to remove the top of the readymade coffin. He dropped the microphone and hurried over. “Hutch, get out of there!”
Hutch looked over his shoulder. “Are you crazy! We’re ready to get him out of this thing!”
“It’s booby-trapped, Hutchinson.”
“Captain,” Hutch begged. “Please, don’t ask me to leave him now.” There was no doubt and in order to get Starsky out in one piece they needed to formulate a plan. He turned to Starsky. “Starsk, listen to me. I have to go talk to Dobey.”
The words were muffled, but what he heard panicked Starsky. “No, don’t, Hutch! Please don’t leave me!”
“Starsky, listen to me!” Hutch kneeled in close. “This box may be booby-trapped! Do you understand!”
“Dobey’s here, Starsk,” Hutch assured him. “A little while longer. I promise.”
Seeing him much calmer, Hutch was reluctant to leave. He saw cops backed away as he approached Dobey.
“Lucy found traces of plastic explosive on the bottom of the case the dog was in. It was in the indentations of the Plexiglas. She spoke with a member from the bomb squad. They think it’s set on pressure sensors.”
“If we take him out of there, he’ll die.” At his nod, Hutch clenched his fists. “He’s not staying in the damn thing a moment longer.”
“We’ll compensate with dirt,” Dobey said. He motioned for the bulldozer.
Hutch took a moment to look at the machine then turned to where Starsky was. His eye caught Baker coming forward with a fire extinguisher. “What are you doing with that?”
“Lucy said it will kill the ants.”
They went to the coffin and Hutch took a crowbar. Careful, he worked at prying the lid apart. Baker stuck the nozzle inside and used enough retardant to kill the fire ants. Hutch moved to Starsky’s head. “Buddy, we’re taking the lid off and you’ve to stay still. You can’t get up yet. Do you understand?”
He got a shaky nod and Hutch moved off the top of the death box. As the lid was removed he stuck his hand inside. When Starsky had grasped it, he almost cried. His partner had pulled his hand to his chest and the grip was a lifeline. “Okay, Starsk, they’re going to bring some dirt over and cover you.”
“No, Hutch, no more!” Starsky was almost at the end of his sanity. He couldn’t take anymore.
“It’s the only way, Starsky. We’ve got to buy enough time to pull you out.”
The cry tore at Hutch’s heart and he looked over at the bulldozer driving over. Baker walked over with a rope and helped Hutch tie it to Starsky’s belt loop. He watched the young cop head over to a group holding the rope.
When the bulldozer dumped the dirt on Starsky’s body, Hutch pulled away and took cover. He looked up to see Starsky flying out of the makeshift chamber and land on the hard ground. Before he could get up the coffin exploded.
Hutch rushed over to Starsky’s prone form and moved in close. “Starsky.” He wasn’t moving and he almost lost it right there. A hand reached out and grabbed onto his arm. Hutch breathed a sigh of relief and rested his head on Starsky’s. “You’re safe, Starsk.”
The paramedics approached with a gurney and in a matter of minutes Starsky was loaded and they were heading towards the ambulance. “My head.”
Hutch leaned in close. “What’s the matter?”
“I don’t want to lay down, Hutch. I need to sit up.”
The paramedics raised his head up and Starsky relaxed. As they moved along, Starsky kept a tight grip on Hutch’s hand. Baker watched the entire scene with amazement. He had seen something only he wasn’t sure what it was.
Baker wandered back to the parked cars and he stopped at seeing something. A broken tape recorder lay in the dirt. He remembered seeing it on the television screen. Baker examined it and saw the record button still pushed down. It was too damaged to play, but something told him it was important. He glanced around and popped the tape out. As he walked away, Baker slipped it into his pocket.
Four hours later, Starsky was in a hospital bed resting. He refused to close his eyes without a light on and the head of the bed raised. Hutch cajoled Starsky to accept a sedative. His partner needed several hours of uninterrupted sleep. Nightmares would come later, Hutch knew. For now it was fluids and rest.
When he was sure Starsky was sound asleep, Hutch relaxed in the chair near the bed. He would have to get some shuteye himself. His stomach growled in protest and it was then he realized he hadn’t eaten the entire time Starsky was held captive underground.
He promised a quick trip to the vending machines and back as he got up. Out in the hallway, Hutch found the lounge and dug some change out of his pocket. An apple was the only acceptable nourishment and as Hutch slipped the quarters in he hoped it was at least edible. He decided on water rather than soda and coffee.
Hutch left and started down the hallway towards Starsky’s room and was surprised to see Baker coming towards him. “What are you doing here? You should be home resting.”
“How is he?”
“Other than dehydration and a million ant bites, he’s good. A couple of days here and he’ll be as good as new.” Hutch glanced at the closed door. “Physically, that is. The rest will take time.”
“He’ll be okay.” Baker almost hesitated, but felt he had a place to say it. “What about you?”
“Me?” Hutch was surprised. “I’m fine. Why do you ask?”
“You were there with him just about. You barely drank anything and I know you didn’t eat or sleep.” When Hutch didn’t say anything, Baker stuck his hand in his pocket. “After you left with Starsky I was leaving and I found the tape recorder. The record button was still down on it.”
Hutch’s eyes went to Baker’s hands and he saw small cassette.
“If I thought I was going to die I’d want to leave a message for the ones I care about the most.” He held it out.
The cassette was a profound statement of life and death. Its very existence reminded Hutch of what he had almost lost. He was afraid, but took it.
“I didn’t listen to it. I wouldn’t be surprised if he had a message for you on it.”
Hutch’s mouth was dry. He fingered the tape and wondered if he wanted to know Starsky’s final message to him. “Thanks.”
When Baker was gone, Hutch stood there in the hallway contemplating. Should he listen to it? He was curious, but held back because of the fear building. They had both faced death more times than he cared to remember. They had spoken to each other often enough of their wishes and promises made to follow them through. But this was far more than he ever expected. It would force him to deal with the potential loss of Starsky in a way he knew he wasn’t prepared for. He put the tape in his pocket and went into the hospital room.
The first night out of the hospital, Starsky lay on his stomach while Hutch applied ointment to the numerous ant bites. Much of the swelling had gone down, but the itching threatened to drive him insane. The spots he couldn’t reach, Hutch took care of without a second thought.
“Damn it, Hutch! I gotta scratch!”
“Did I ever tell you about Katy’s bout with the chicken pox?”
Starsky rolled his eyes. “Not really. I don’t need the tale of an eight year old girl with her itching issues.”
“Seven,” Hutch corrected. “She wouldn’t stop scratching no matter what. Everyone had some insane idea and it was the gardener who solved the matter.”
“Hutch, just hurry, will ya’?”
Hutch smiled a little and finished up on the back of Starsky’s upper thigh. “She brought over some oven mitts and told Mom that if Katy took them off taping them on would be considered an act of love.”
Starsky raised his head. “Are you telling me that if I don’t stop scratching you’ll tape oven mitts over my hands?”
After a light swat to Starsky’s backside, Hutch got off the bed. “All finished.”
“Hutch.” Starsky watched Hutch leave the bedroom and grabbed his sweatpants. He slipped them on and found Hutch in the kitchen washing his hands. “You told me that just so to keep me from scratching.”
“It worked for Katy.” Hutch grabbed two glasses down from the cabinet. “You want some ice tea?”
“Yeah.” Starsky headed to the greenhouse and sat in the chair. The itching was far away in his mind as he looked out at the moonlit sky. He glanced at Hutch who came in carrying two glasses. Starsky took one and looked up at the full moon. There was just enough of breeze to get comfortable. “I don’t get it, Hutch.”
Hutch sat down next to him. “What’s that?”
“In all the years we’ve been cops when people come after us, personally, it’s for something we did or something they think we did. It’s never been so…” Starsky had difficulty spitting the word out. “Random. Not that it would’ve felt any better being buried alive by someone you know.”
“It was personal, Starsky. It was personal for every cop because they know it could’ve been them.” Hutch took a drink of his tea then set it down on the table. “There was a hell of a lot of cops working overtime for you, buddy.”
“I wish I could describe it, Hutch. I wish I could tell you how it felt.”
Hutch looked over and saw the fear and pain in Starsky’s moist eyes. He pulled him close. “I was there, Starsky. In every way I could be I was with you.”
Starsky let his head drop on Hutch’s shoulder. “I was so scared. I don’t know how I’ll be able to sleep or even get under a blanket.”
“Time, Starsk. We’ve got plenty of time to work through it.”
Feeling rather foolish for the sudden show of emotion, Starsky raised his head. “I’ll need a nightlight for a while.”
“Mickey Mouse or Daffy Duck?” Hutch joked.
“Where’d you get the money, Hutch?”
Hutch sobered and didn’t meet Starsky’s eyes. “I was hoping we could save it until later.”
“I know the department wouldn’t have approved of paying off a criminal. You know it, too.”
“What’d you expect me do?” Hutch got out of his seat and headed to the balcony. His eyes remained fixed ahead. “It was the only chance there was to get you back.” Hutch turned. “I’d do it again in a heartbeat.”
“You don’t have to tell me what it means to our partnership. I already know.”
The kidnapped girl from so long ago came to mind. Starsky remembered aiming and pulling the trigger. He didn’t think then…just acted. It was a rare subject for them. The act itself was the truth of their relationship no matter how unpleasant the possible outcome. They came away lucky on that one.
Hutch moved back to his seat and looked at Starsky. “We can’t do this anymore. What good are we out on the street if we’re willing to put each other above the people we’re trying to help?”
“And you think calling it quits is the answer.”
“I have to. I’m not willing to force everyone around me to comprise where none should exist.”
“As long as one of us wears a badge the risk is always there.”
With a hand on Starsky’s thigh, Hutch leaned forward. “Starsk…”
“You’re right, Hutch. Maybe we should have figured this out earlier.”
“I’m not asking you to quit. This is my choice.”
“And you think I’m just going to stay a cop without you,” Starsky challenged. He shook his head. “I don’t give a damn about the job if you’re not there with me.”
Hutch ran his hand through Starsky’s curls. “Don’t do anything you’ll regret on my account, Starsk.”
“The only regret I’ll have is not being with you wherever you go.” When Starsky leaned in, Hutch smiled and met him halfway. The kiss was a promise to the future.