Business was brisk in the gambling room, but the bar wasn't overrun at the moment. Linda fixed a tray of drinks for one of the waitresses to circulate among the customers busily betting their lives away at the tables, then turned to rearrange her bodice in the mirror. As tight as it was, constant vigilance was needed not to pop out of it. She was no stranger to undercover work, but this one was a pain in the ass. Her own life had gone on hold to maintain an around-the-clock cover, to the point of sharing an apartment with another woman working at The Familia. She missed her cat, her pad, her friends -- and in that order.
With a sigh, she patted her wavy hair. At least she wasn't playing a street-walker this time and hadn't needed to change her natural dark color to brassy red or bleached blonde. Small favors, she thought, wrinkling her nose. After some weeks, she had managed to be transferred from the lobby to behind one of the bars servicing the gambling room, a preferable position. Alcohol loosened tongues. Of course, she didn't know why she had bothered, since she was little more than window dressing for one Caporetto. The case, she had been firmly told, belonged to Sergeants Starsky and Hutchinson. Both pleasant enough men, but neither particularly considerate toward a female colleague, except in all the wrong ways.
"Hey, lovely lady, give your man a brew," came from behind her as if on cue, Starsky's voice carrying a suggestive leer. "And anythin' else you'd care to."
Through the mirror, she noted his eyes were, as usual, on her buttocks inside the tiny hot-pants of her uniform. She knew he was only partially playing Caporetto's scenario. Starsky's eyes didn't need an excuse to roam. Not feeling kindly toward him at the moment, she swayed her hips, teasing on purpose. Want a look, get an eyeful. It was already settled between them that it wouldn't go beyond teasing.
She liked him just fine and obviously someone had been very generous while dishing out his sex appeal, but Linda was fond of fads. She'd tried all, from Catholic schools to Zen, from motorcycle gangs to commune living, and now she was into the New Celibacy. She didn't think it was going to last long, recognized it as a fad, but she liked going all out for each new phase. The only thing she didn't consider a fad was her job. That was her foundation, what she worked hard at while she played at the rest of life. Worked hard, that was, when she was given half a chance. The frosty mug she put in front of Starsky hit the bar a little too hard. "Come back for the rest later, lover."
Starsky lowered his voice. "Wish I may, wish I might."
Linda leaned close to him over the counter. "We can't all get what we wish for, capisce?" she said pointedly.
"Ain't that the truth," Starsky agreed with a sigh. He almost pouted.
Linda couldn't help smiling. He was really quite endearing. The problem was, she couldn't be sure he was artless about it. That wistful little-boy look could've been practiced and honed on anybody from an adoring grandma to half the female population of LA. She kept her smile carefully indifferent. Pa Baylor raised no pigeons, boy. In fact, he was a lot like you.
Probably aware of wasting his best expression, Starsky turned just friendly. "Okay, I know you don't much like this set-up, but it wasn't my choice, sweetheart. Talk to Captain Mallory. And remember, the last time we teamed, you starred while Hutch 'n me were just backup."
"I ain't likely to forget, considerin' I got a lengthy hospital stay outta it."
"We'll try to do better this time." He reached to play with her hair, and added seriously: "Do me a favor? Don't say anythin' like that to Hutch, even in jest. He felt bad enough about it."
Now there was an honest expression if she'd ever heard one. Starsky also seemed to have things he wouldn't play at, wouldn't let anybody play with. Linda glanced toward the subject of their conversation, then her attention was caught and she studied the blond. Hutch was at his table where women converged in droves. He was leaning close to an over-dressed, middle-aged woman as if her next move was of personal importance. "Will ya look at him?"
Starsky followed her gaze. "What?"
"Get a load of the stakes. He just asked her if she's in."
"So watch her."
The woman nervously fingered the few chips remaining in front of her, signed a marker, and pushed both the chips and the promissory note toward the middle of the table, her hands shaking but her eyes never leaving Hutch's. The blond bestowed a dazzling smile on her. "So she bet more than she should've. What else is new?" Starsky asked.
"Why do you think she did that?"
"How do I know?"
"You wouldn't." Glands on the wrong wave length, she decided. "Damn him, he ain't playin' with chips, he's playin' with hormones."
"Hutch? Oh, he's just brought up to be polite to women."
That kinda courtesy, she thought, we don't need. "Bullshit." How did Starsky think Hutch turned in more markers than anyone, and why did Genovese keep transferring him to higher-stake actions? "Face it, your partner's lethal. He can make a killin' and leave the poor suckers feelin' like he's done 'em a favor." Her words made Starsky look puzzled, then spin around with the barstool to watch the blond.
Hutch was in the regular outfit all dealers wore. On others, it was a uniform. On him, the silky whites covering him snugly from neck to feet looked striking. Breath-taking, Linda corrected herself. His fair, long hair attracted light, formed a platinum-gold halo. He looked as pure and virginal as an angel, except for the arrogant lift of his head, the languid smile, his bedroom eyes -- the perfect and totally unfair combination of don't-touch right alongside come-and-feast. And his customers looked willing to bet all for the chance to devour him.
Linda leaned forward to look at Starsky's face, curious about what he was seeing. Starsky's expression was affectionate, amused, and perhaps a little proud, as if he were watching his beloved, precocious child stage an elaborate act. He noticed Linda's scrutiny. "Nah," he said. "It's just that he can play the game with the best of 'em."
She gave up. Obviously, they were seeing the same thing with different parts of their anatomy. Starsky continued, "He's doin' great, too." He turned back around. She detected a shade of depression in him. "Wish I could say the same."
Linda knew Starsky was getting uptight that in over a month he had made little headway. He constantly complained about Jack Valenti blocking his way. In the pecking order, Valenti occupied a place equal to Caporetto's and the man wasn't going to get passed over because of an upstart from New York. "You're gettin' there," she said with an encouraging smile. Yes, that wistful look of his should certainly be banned.
"Oh yeah? Where?" He drew her head close, and whispered under the cover of a man cavorting with his lady. "This set-up with Genovese is fine, but what does it get me? Buncha whores and gamblers. Big fat fuckin' deal. As for the junk, this is just an outlet. I gotta get to the rest o' the caporegimes."
"Well, I'm on to another set of marked bills," she said, thinking it might cheer him up. Starsky had stumbled on the fact that someone was passing dirty money at the club. He had put Linda on the lookout, saying anything could be a stepping stone.
"Don't get too hot. I haven't had time to run the numbers down. Maybe I should tell Ken, too."
"No rush. He doesn't handle any real money at his table, so what's the use? Anyway, it might come to nothing after all."
"How about some service?" came a familiar voice over their bent heads.
Linda pulled away as Hutch threw one long leg over the stool next to Starsky, using it as support rather than a seat. "Break already? Beer?" The blond nodded.
She gave him his beer, then started wiping the bartop, glancing at the partners periodically. The men didn't speak unnecessarily, didn't even see much of each other except in passing. There were too many video cameras around, and mirrors were always risky. They were taking no chances. Linda was the only steady link between them. She wondered if she should warn them about their body language, though. Normally, two men sitting at a bar would lay definite boundaries between them. There was almost a visible lack of one between Ken and Dave, although they weren't touching or even looking at one another. Somehow, they seemed to gravitate toward each other naturally. They looked as different as day and night, Hutch in his whites and Starsky in a dark, classy suit. Still, in some undefinable way, they were clearly a single unit.
A waitress drew Linda's attention. Maybe it's just me, she thought while filling the large order. As friendly as both men had always been toward her, she had felt like a third wheel when they had teamed before, was feeling it now. Anyway, it was time to pay attention to being the barmaid.
Starsky saw Hutch lean his elbows on the bar and rub his forehead as if it hurt. "Headache?" he had to ask.
His partner nodded, frowning. "The smoke, noise, and most of all the incredible stupidity of people -- God, I hate this job."
"Don't knock it. The back office is crazy about you."
"Whoopee," was Hutch's dead-pan reaction.
Starsky covered his mouth by bringing the large mug up. "Cheer up, babe, you're doin' hell of a lot better than I am." He might not be crazy about that fact, but if Hutch was feeling down, he didn't mind admitting it. At that moment, he spied Salvatore unsteadily making his way out of the gambling room into the club proper. "Ooops, gotta go babysit."
With very little effort on his part, Salvatore Marruzzi had become his charge. For some reason fathomable only to his grandfather, the young man was kept in the family business. Genovese was obviously under orders to involve and educate him, to what use nobody could imagine. Genovese pretended, and Salvatore pitifully went through the motions, no doubt to keep Gramps happy. The young man needed a watchdog. Simply by not looking terribly adverse to the notion, Starsky had found himself elected for the job others were only too glad to be rid of. In a short while, something in the drug-dulled brain had decided to like Starsky, perhaps because the detective was doing his best to be amiable while nobody else had ever bothered.
He followed Salvatore into the club, but no further when he saw the man join Genovese at his special table. That would be presumptuous. Still. Instead, he chose an out-of-the-way table to sit and wait, something he was doing too much of. Hutch didn't seem to have a monopoly in headaches.
Trying to see past the smoke, of cigarettes and other things, plus the wildly scintillating lights keeping beat to the music, he studied the occupants of Genovese's table. Gambino was there, with two of his lieutenants. So was Luigi. Starsky had yet to figure out exactly what that hulk of a man did to earn his living in the organization. He drew a hefty paycheck, and seemingly did nothing for it except be present anywhere and everywhere. There were some other men at the table he didn't recognize, except a glimpse of one of them left a nagging itch at the back of his brain. He tried to invent a reason to join them, wanting to get closer to Gambino, who ran the narc operations.
"You forgot your change."
He glanced up at Linda. Knowing he had done nothing of the sort, he checked the serial numbers of the bills she gave him.
"Believe it or not," she leaned to say, "Valenti handed them to me."
That sounded wrong. "Really?"
"Don't mean he knew what he was passin'."
He probably didn't, Starsky decided. Valenti was too cagey to risk his neck on his own turf. If Genovese ever stumbled on the fact that someone was passing marked bills at his club and who it was, that person's life wouldn't be worth much.
Linda drew his attention elsewhere. "Don't look now, but we got competition.
"At the boss's table. Isn't that Bauer from Narco?"
Starsky glanced around and realized that her sharp eye had identified what had been nagging at him. "Sure is. What the hell's he doin'?"
"Same thing we are?" Linda suggested.
A narco operative close to a narco dealer wasn't that strange a sight -- normally. But what Linda didn't know was that the commissioner had suspended all sting operations on the Marruzzi organization, in order not to muddy the waters for Caporetto. "Can't be."
"Oh? Should I check it out?"
Some instinct made Starsky grab her arm. "No! I'll handle it. In fact, stay out of his way."
"Of course you'll handle it," Linda said, sweetly but not meaning it in the slightest, "I'll be a good girl and get back to my work now."
"Hey, I didn't mean it that way," Starsky called out after her but she was gone.
What was Bauer doing, obviously being buddy-buddy over there? Starsky recounted to himself all he knew about the man, and came up with a guess which he decided made perfect sense. However, it might be awkward to have the man around on an unrelated case, even if Starsky happened to sympathize personally.
The customers were leaving the gambling room, either going home in defeat or to drown their sorrows at the club. Only a few would be celebrating. Hutch pasted on his best smile and politely talked to the stragglers, wishing they'd all be gone and fast. Starsky appeared at his side, as he did every night at the closing of the tables, to collect the markers. Hutch gathered them up for him.
His partner leaned close. "Something came up. We gotta talk. Expect me." Hutch nodded, knowing he should be glad that something was breaking after so long a dry spell, but finding himself only apprehensive. It must've showed on his face. "Not that big a deal," Starsky added.
"I'll go straight home."
"Take your time. I still got a coupla hours of accountin' to do," his partner grumbled disgustedly, sweeping up the markers. "To think I became a cop so I wouldn't be stuck with this kinda crap."
Hutch changed into his own clothes, badly missing the comfort of his jeans, but stuck with suits as the club regulations demanded. He started to leave, but lingered on the patio overlooking the sea, trying to clear his head and lungs. The gambling rooms were basically sunken tombs, too full of smoke, noise, and fools. He was spending altogether too much time at The Familia, and not enough. Starsky had to be there constantly, and being at the club only during the nights didn't suit the blond. Pretending to be a frustrated musician at heart, he had gotten close to the band members, which gave him reason to be there during rehearsals and such.
The club was still crowded, people spilling out onto the deck. There was a lower level, only a few steps up from the beach, with light wooden furnishings under gaily colored awnings, where the clientele changed drastically. People were younger there, with less money to spend, but drug business was brisker, at least in small, individual sales. Hutch went down, ignoring the customers in favor of the dark scenery highlighted by reflections in the water.
"You like something to drink?" someone asked him in a deep Mexican accent.
He turned from the railing he was leaning against and saw one of the scantily-clad waitresses. She had rich black hair and richer curves, was quite short, looking like a ceremonially-painted little Aztec doll that someone had forgotten to dress properly. He seemed to remember running into her before and thinking she was too young to be there. "No, thanks."
"Food?" she suggested brightly, almost hopefully. He shook his head. Her smile turned to a sincere pout while she fiddled with the cocktail napkins on the tray she was holding to her body, under her breasts. The tray was pushing them up, supporting them like an offering. He didn't think she was issuing a come-on, but the sight was suggestive. Hutch smiled at the notion that flashed through his head when she asked, innocently, "Anything you like?"
Child, he thought, tearing his eyes away with some effort, don't ask questions like that. He shook his head at her and at his own whimsy. "Nothing, thank you."
She seemed to want to linger, but started to leave. Backing up, she bumped into somebody behind her. Before she could turn to apologize, the man had wrapped himself around her like an octopus, slurring a crude suggestion.
Obviously, the girl didn't want to be pawed, but the man was drunk and a lot bigger than she was. Hutch reached to grab his wrists and pulled away the hands, then pushed him back. "Hey, Casanova, why don't you take it where they're giving it away?" he said, indicating the club. The drunk started to bluster, but Hutch cut him short with sharp jabs against his breastbone. "Want to walk or get carried?" That seemed to take care of it. Grumbling, the man staggered away. Hutch turned to the girl. "Are you all right?"
"Sure," she said, straightening her brief skirt. "Happens alla time."
He felt the need to apologize for his gender. "I'm sorry."
She shrugged lightly, dismissing the incident. Hutch thought it was a shame for a young girl to be so resigned to the inevitable. "Thank you," she said.
"I can't get you anything?"
She seemed so eager to be of some service, he reconsidered. "Why not? How about a club sandwich to go?"
Happily, she bounced away. However, when she came back, she was crestfallen. "I'm sorry. The kitchen, it closed."
"It's all right. I wasn't that hungry anyway."
"I'm off now. You want, I fix you food."
Uh-oh. Maybe she had taken his interference with the drunk as interest in her. Not that he wouldn't have been interested -- twenty years ago. Before she was born, he thought, sobering himself. He was about to turn her down gently, but she spoke up first.
"I live close. Right there."
Without at first attaching it any importance, he followed her finger, then asked incredulously, "You live there, in that house?" She was pointing straight at Genovese's villa, about two hundred yards from the club, the grounds facing the beach surrounded by thick shrubbery.
"Not in the house. Behind it. I work there."
Hutch suddenly found himself interested in the girl. "Wait a minute. I thought you worked here."
"Oh, only sometimes. You know the man own this club, he live there. I work for his wife, but the mistress, she don't stay home much. When she go to islands, I've no work. So I work here."
"Genovese makes you do waitress work, because there isn't enough for you to do at the house?"
"No, no. I want to work in club. Of course, Mr. Genovese, he take no accountta what I want, but his man, Bruno, I tell him, he tell Mr. Genovese, so I work here when the mistress's away. Bruno's good to me."
I bet, Hutch thought, identifying Bruno as an ex-fighter who was now one of Genovese's bodyguards. She continued, pointing up at the club, "He say I'm real good, one day I work up there."
"Why would you want to work up there?" he muttered, knowing the answer. Glitter attracted.
"I meet people, maybe stars," she answered predictably.
Hutch kept himself from shaking his head. "What's your name?"
He looked at her disbelievingly. "Come on. Connie?" Looking stubborn, she nodded. "Let me take a wild guess. Consuela?"
Her eyes widened. "How you know?"
"Told you, it was a guess. Besides, I like Consuela. It's very pretty, like you."
She blushed, making Hutch wonder at her reactions. As young as she was, she couldn't be very innocent. Was she really attracted to him? "You call me Consuela, I don't mind."
"Then you can call me Ken. Come on, Consuela, I'll walk you home, but I can't stay. I have an appointment."
She went to get a wrap while he waited, despairing at himself. He was going to lead along a girl young enough to be his daughter, just because she might come handy on the case one day. Sometimes I detest this job.
She came back with a sweater, her brown, shapely legs still very much in sight. He started up the steps into the street, but she pointed down. "I go on beach. There are guards at the gate. They bother me sometimes. You know."
"And none this way?"
"Some, but I know when and where." She skipped down the few steps onto the sand, sat to remove her high-heeled shoes, then looked up at his tidily-suited form. "Maybe you not like this way?"
"What's not to like?" He took off his shoes and socks, turned up the pantlegs. "A walk through the moonlit beach with a pretty girl?" Who can show me the back door to a mobster's home, he continued to himself. "Is this how you were going to sneak me in?"
She looked embarrassed at having proposed to sneak him into a place. "They won't let you in at the gate. You want, I come to your house."
"That's not a good idea."
"No, Consuela, I'm not married, but I do have an appointment I want to keep, so come on."
A little later, she spoke up again. "Tall, blonde, long pretty legs, right?"
He couldn't help laughing. "Tall enough, dark, and his legs are just fine, I guess."
"His?" She sounded disappointed.
"It's a business appointment, Consuela."
"Oh." She didn't take the opportunity to inquire into his business. She had obviously learned not to ask too many questions. In business matters, at least. "You got a girl?"
"Not a steady one, no."
"I see you at the club alla time. No girl."
Evidently, she thought he was just a regular customer of the place. "Enough about me. Tell me about yourself."
She started talking about Mexico, which she had left four years ago. Reading between the lines, Hutch concluded she had grown up in a barrio, and was, more than likely, an illegal alien. She was trying very hard to be an American. He said a few things in Spanish, and while she looked delighted at his knowledge, she kept answering in her accented English.
He studied her, merrily chattering away next to him. Her face wasn't beautiful, but cleansed of the ridiculous make-up, it would be fresh and pleasant. Her ripe, dark-skinned body was something else again. It would broaden and lose tone too early, but right then it was at the peak of bloom, a definite influence on a man's glands, his own no exception. She was unrefined. Years and the wrong kind of experiences might turn her coarse, but she was still young enough to get away with it. He looked for a descriptive word and came up with one that fit perfectly: unadulterated.
"I go this way." She pointed into the shrubbery surrounding the estate.
He couldn't see a convenient opening. "You'll be all right?" he asked, ready to offer to go further.
"Sure. The dogs know me."
That decided him to let her go on. "Okay. I'll see you." She tilted up her face expectantly. Hutch sighed. "How old are you?"
Terrific. She might be even younger, but didn't look as if she'd admit to any more. He lightly kissed her on the temple. "Buenas noches, Consuela."
It was past four o'clock in the morning when Starsky finally arrived at Hutch's 'cover' apartment. "Sorry I'm late. Had to tuck in the Marruzzi baby first."
Exhausted, he threw himself on the couch, then rallied to look at the place he hadn't seen before. It was a roof-top apartment, close to the Marina, little more than a square box, furnished typically for convenience rentals, but Hutch had managed to cram it full of his green parasites. "Couldn't leave the jungle behind, huh?"
"And who was going to water them?"
"See if you can hack a hole through it, buddy, and find me some coffee. I can't keep my eyes open."
Next thing he knew, a hand was shaking him by the shoulder. "Starsky, hey." Hutch was perched on the coffee table, holding out a mug. Starsky struggled to sit up, then reached for the coffee, while he rubbed his eyes with the other hand. "Don't do that." Hutch tugged at his sleeve to pull his hand away. "Your eyes are bloodshot already."
"I can't see worth a damn. And they burn."
"Sure they do. You shouldn't fall asleep with those contacts. Dammit, don't rub. Can't you take them out?"
"No. Can't stay too long." He had a room at the Marina Hotel, and only after he closed the door could he count on not being seen. He blinked until the hazy film lifted as the lenses centered again. "It's okay now."
"So what came up?"
"Coupla things. One, somebody's passin' dirty money at the club. I came across serial numbers too much in sequence, and Linda ran them down for me at Metro. They're from middlin' jobs, mostly."
"Is that strange? I mean, considering everything that goes on at the club."
"If a customer is passin' them, no," Starsky answered. "But there's too much of it floatin' around for that. If somebody in the organization is doin' it, he's in a lotta trouble. I gather a while back there was a big stink because of marked money, so now it's taboo. Sure, they launder money, but only very large amounts, and that goes to Luchese. I don't know the exact details yet, but he's got contacts to send it to Switzerland. Maybe diplomatic pouches or somethin'. Anyway, it all goes into the European market, and maybe a bit of it comes back through tourist trade and bank exchanges, but that's it."
"So what do you want to do about it?" Hutch asked.
"Find out who's contaminatin' Genovese's turf, see if he's open to savin' his skin for a price."
Hutch didn't look too pleased. "Go easy. Remember what Rizzo said about their Code of Silence."
Starsky thought it best to quickly go onto the next subject. "Two, remember a cop named Bauer, from Narco?"
"Sure. That big load confiscated outside the bay last year, two boats' worth of Mexican brown, wasn't that his?"
"Right. And the fiasco afterwards, when it disappeared right out of Property Warehouse."
"Yeah -- hey, wait a minute. That was linked to Gambino."
Starsky hated it when Hutch remembered things that he'd racked his brains for, and just prattled them off. It stole his thunder. "Exactly."
"Nothing proved, though."
"I think Bauer's still tryin' to prove it. Guess where he's spendin' his time lately? He was at the club tonight, damn near on Gambino's lap."
"What!? That's impossible. The commissioner has suspended all undercover investigations in favor of ours."
"Yeah, maybe Bauer don't listen too good."
"He damn well better! I'll call Dobey first thing in the morning and have him pulled off. We certainly don't need to clash with another operation."
"Uh, Hutch, don't be so hasty, huh? What if Bauer's boss doesn't know about it?"
"All the more reason -- " Hutch started.
Starsky cut him off. "No, no, think about it. Last year they almost traced the whole thing to Gambino. Remember what happened then? Bauer's partner got blown away."
"So what are you saying?"
"Hutch, if my partner got killed and I knew who was responsible, what would I care if it was God Almighty himself personally comin' down to tell me to back off? Think I'd listen? Would you?"
"Oh." Hutch stood up, attempted to pace, seemed to find the area too restrictive and sat down again. "Okay, but we can't risk tripping over each other."
"I know, so I wanted to check with you. Think I should just talk to Bauer and -- " He got stopped when Hutch's hand clamped on his wrist.
No! You didn't already go and do it, did you?" Hutch asked.
"I said I came to check with you, whaddaya think?" His wrist was released. "But it's the simplest thing to do. We can cooperate even. Maybe he has something on Gambino. Heaven knows I don't have it. I mean, we're all on the same side."
"Are you sure about that?"
"Aw, come on, Hutch." You'd suspect your own mother, he was about to say, but remembered that his partner hadn't started out that way. If anything, Starsky had been the one with the more suspicious nature then. Through the years, Hutch had become the result of too many lessons learned too well the hard way.
"Come on, nothing! Okay, we don't want to get the man in trouble if he's pulling a Lone Ranger act, but you're not going to bet your life on that, you hear me? Stay out of his way until we find out exactly what he's doing."
That was acceptable enough for Starsky. However, if Bauer was a threat, there was something else to worry about. "Deal, on one condition. Take some days off while I dig."
"Look, I can move around. I can see before I'm seen. I'm behind the scenes. If he steps into the back, you're like a friggin' beacon at that table. Stay away for a while."
Hutch's answer was short, simple, and definite. "No."
"Hutch, you're bein' ridiculous."
"We're in together, we stay together. It's bad enough already. I'm not sitting here going out of my head while God-knows-what happens over there."
Starsky sighed deeply, recognizing an insurmountable obstacle when he saw it. "You know you can blow the whole case with that attitude."
"If I blow it, I blow it. Really, Starsky, don't you know I can't care that much anymore? Say we brought down the whole Marruzzi circus. How many more are out there? What the fucking difference is it going to make in the long run?"
"I can't believe you said that. You, of all people. If that's how you feel, why are you on the case?"
"Do I have to answer that?"
He didn't, but the unspoken answer bothered Starsky. "Hutch, a partner is not a cause. I don't want to be yours."
"Sorry, I'm fresh out of others. You'll have to do."
"Hutch -- "
The blond jumped up, a bundle of nervous energy. "Do you really want to continue this conversation, Starsky? You're not going to like it."
Starsky took a moment to draw in a deep breath and slowly let it out. "Please, Hutch, don't do this to me now. When it's all over, I promise I'll listen to what you have to say, but don't play with my head in the middle of a case."
Hutch seemed to deflate. "You're right, I'm sorry." He sank onto the couch next to his partner. "You do what you have to do and I'll be there -- just don't ask me not to be there." He turned, smiled suddenly, a lively expression coming across his face. "Hey, this is the first chance we got to talk in a month. Tell me, partner, what's new?"
His erratic mood swings were wearing on Starsky's nerves. "Not much. What's new with you?"
"Let's see. I took a walk on the beach tonight with a pretty girl."
"You don't say."
"Yeah. Consuela, works at the club. Not that anything's going to come of it. She's just a kid."
"She's what, five?" Starsky asked at the description.
"Close. Nineteen, she says. For some reason, she likes me."
Starsky thought he might as well contribute to the banter. "Wish Caporetto can say as much."
"He's got a girl. Remember Linda? Solves all your problems."
"All but one," Starsky grumbled.
"Ah. Well, you can try asking nicely."
"No, thanks. There's little enough of my face left to look like me. I don't want it rearranged."
Hutch laughed heartily. "So you tried already." Starsky made a face. "Well, buddy, I have only one solitary suggestion left."
Starsky slapped his partner's arm backhanded. "Solitary bein' the key word, shut up, and join me in a cup of coffee before I gotta go."
He was seeing it through an elongated, dark tunnel, the watcher at one end, the youth at the other, and he was both. He was there and far away at the same time. It was so hot. Sweat ran unchecked down his body. Others cavorted in the cool waters of the lake. He had to sit and wait, no relief from the sweltering heat until his partner came back from break. He was the watcher of others' safety.
It was.... Had been.... Would be...?
Then the call for help came. Over the cacophony of sounds, it called to him. He plunged into the water, a shock to his overheated system. The distance looked so great suddenly, time so scarce, and the worst was knowing he had watched over others but had neglected his own partner. He was terrified of being too late.
When he arrived, there was nobody there. His over-taxed muscles took him into the dark depths. Over and over again. His lungs felt like bursting. Nothing. He came up, called out the familiar name uselessly over the empty stretch of sparkling blue, was ready to burst into tears....
The water broke, his friend's face surfacing, very much alive with merriment.
"You fell for it! You actually fell for it."
He was swimming/walking/running away then, and behind him Jack kept calling out:
"It was a joke. Hey, it was just a joke. Come on, Kenny, it was only a joke."
Suddenly, he was running through the tunnel, and it wasn't dark anymore, but white, cruelly bright and endless, then standing still, looking at some long paper, also white and endless, rolling in/out of his fingers, with only a thin blue tracing running its length, the steady pattern suddenly flattening out --
"It's not a joke," he heard himself whispering as cold machines buzzed around his ears, "Dear God, it's not a joke." The buzzing got louder, became unbearable, making him raise his hands to cover his ears....
The movement awakened him. Hutch became aware that it was late in the afternoon, the small apartment felt like a hothouse, his clothes were sticking to his body, and the phone was ringing. He groped for it. "Yeah?"
His throat was dry, he was short of breath, and couldn't form words.
"Hutch," Starsky's voice came through the wires. "Hutch?"
"I'm here," he managed.
"Hold on." He found the soft drink sitting next to the couch, took a flat, tasteless gulp. "Nothing's wrong. Fell asleep on the couch. I'm getting too old for these long nights."
"Sorry I woke you up, but, buddy, isn't it time to get ready for work?"
Hutch glanced at his watch. "Right," he said, grateful to be awakened, not necessarily only to avoid tardiness. "Why are you calling?"
"I won't be around tonight, and I didn't want you to worry. Sal's having his idea of a party on his boat. Guess who gets to watch over it?"
Starsky growled in place of a response and hung up. Hutch stayed on the couch for a while, the remnants of the dream still with him, wondering at the idiosyncrasies of a human mind. He'd have thought he had totally forgotten the lousy excuse for a joke that Jack had pulled during the summer they had spent as lifeguards at a camp. The last portion of the dream he didn't have to wonder about, used to its surfacing in more variations and more often than he cared to count.
Taking a deep breath, he rose. He needed another shower.