“Am I My Brother’s Keeper?”
The phone was ringing as Detective Sergeant David Starsky came into his apartment at the end of a long and trying day, his hands full of bills from the mailbox and the beginnings of a huge headache pounding at his temples. There were few things Starsky hated more than going to court, but one of them was going to court only to watch the judge give a slap on the wrist to some scumbag he and his partner, Detective Ken Hutchinson, had risked their lives finding and capturing. Even his usual good-luck charm of going to the john right before court was called to order hadn’t worked this time.
Sighing, Starsky dropped the mail on the coffee table and picked up the phone. “Starsky,” he almost barked.
“David?” said a scared and familiar voice.
“Nicky?” Starsky recognized his younger brother’s voice on the other end and knew at once that Nick was in trouble again. His brother had never committed any crimes serious enough to get sent up, but he couldn’t stay on the right side of the law, either. He still lived in New York City, where the brothers had grown up, and almost never called his big brother in Los Angeles. “What is it, Nicky? What’s wrong?”
“David, I’m in trouble.”
Rubbing his temples, Starsky thought, Of course you are. Why would you call me otherwise? How much is it going to cost this time?
Their mother had been widowed when both boys were children, and she couldn’t afford to bail her younger son out every time he got in too deep. Starsky couldn’t afford it, either, but he usually found himself helping out, anyway. Hutch kept telling him Nick needed to learn to face his own music, but Starsky had never yet had the grit to say “No.”
“What kind of trouble, Nick?” Starsky asked.
“I can’t talk about it here,” Nick said, his voice shaking. “I’m at a pay phone.”
“Where are you, Nick?” Starsky said patiently.
Here? In L.A.?
“I’ll come and get you,” Starsky said. There went his quiet evening.
“No. You can’t. I don’t want to get you in trouble, too. I’ll come to you later tonight,” Nick said.
“What kind of trouble are you in, Nick?” Starsky demanded. “You better tell me now.”
An even longer silence. Finally, so softly Starsky could barely hear him, Nick said, “I shot a guy. He’s not dead, Davy. He’s gonna be okay. I had to run, Davy, I couldn’t let them send me to prison!”
Starsky sat down on his couch, hard, because his knees wouldn’t support him any longer. Dear God .“Nick, I’m a cop,” he said angrily. “You know I can’t hide you out.”
“I don’t want you to,” Nick said. “I wouldn’t ask you to do that. I just want to stay there one night and then I’m heading for –”
“Don’t tell me,” Starsky interrupted. “I don’t want to know where you’re headed for. If I know that, I’m still an accessory.”
“Okay,” Nick said meekly. “Can I come?”
Starsky wrestled with his conscience. Damn it. He’s my brother, how can I refuse to help him? Why the hell does he DO this to me?
“You can come here for now,” Starsky said at last. “Whether I let you stay depends on what you tell me when you get here. I don’t know right now. Is that good enough?”
“Sure, Davy. Sure. I’ll be there in a while.” Nick hung up.
He only calls me “Davy” at times like this, Starsky thought. I don’t know what to do...Should I call Ma?
But in the end, Starsky did what he always did when he had a problem. He called Hutch.
Hutch beat Nick to Starsky’s apartment.
“What’s he done this time?” he asked as Starsky let him in. Starsky told him. Hutch’s blue eyes widened and he let out a whistle. “Whoa. That’s heavy.”
“Tell me about it,” Starsky said sourly, sitting down and dropping his head in his hands. “So what should I do?”
“You can’t let him stay here,” Hutch said, sitting down next to him and putting a hand on his shoulder. “You’d be in as much trouble as he is if anyone found out.”
“So what do I do with him? Hell, I’m already in trouble for not reporting him immediately.”
“No, not yet,” Hutch said. “Let him come here and tell you his story. Then decide what to do. Trust your own judgment, buddy.”
It didn’t take long before there was a knock at the door, and Starsky opened it to find his younger brother standing there, holding a suitcase in one hand. Nick gave a slightly lopsided version of the Starsky smile and stepped past his brother into the apartment, halting when he saw Hutch.
“You didn’t say Hutch was here,” he said to Starsky, accusingly.
“He wasn’t here when you called,” Starsky said. “He is, now.”
Nick looked from one to the other uncertainly, finally dropping his suitcase on the floor and taking a seat.
Starsky sat down next to Hutch on the couch. Without realizing it, the two of them appeared to Nick as a united front – united against him.
“So what happened, Nicky?” Starsky said. “And no editorializing. Just tell me what happened.”
Nick paused, wet his lips, and decided the hard-luck approach wasn’t going to work this time. Not with Hutch here, anyway. He didn’t much like Hutch. It wasn’t personal. It was just that his brother seemed to take what Hutch said with more faith than what Nick said. And that hurt.
“I was running numbers for a guy in the old neighborhood,” Nick said without preamble. “Some guy tried to rob me of my cash. We struggled – you know what would happen to me if I showed up without the cash, David.”
Starsky nodded without speaking.
“So, we fought awhile, then the guy pulled a gun. And we fought over it, and it went off. Got the guy through the shoulder. It was clean, the bullet went on through.”
“How much cash?” Hutch asked.
“A couple of grand,” Nick said.
“And?” Starsky prompted when Nick didn’t finish. “What happened then?”
“And I split. Bought a plane ticket here.”
Starsky and Hutch looked at each other. “How long have you been gone, Nick?” Starsky asked.
“I left this morning,” Nick said.
“Nicky, you gotta go back.”
Nick shook his head violently. “No. I’m not going to prison.”
“How do you know they won’t find you innocent?” Starsky asked. “It was the other guy’s gun.”
“I’ve got a record....”
Starsky sighed and rubbed his forehead. “Nicky, I thought you told me you were gonna go straight. What the hell happened?”
“It ain’t easy to make a livin’ in New York City, David,” Nick said shortly.
“Not if you don’t get a job, it ain’t,” Starsky snapped.
“I got a job.”
“Runnin’ numbers ain’t a job, little brother,” Starsky pointed out angrily. “I mean a legitimate job.”
“Doin’ what, I ask you? Flippin’ burgers at Micky D’s?”
“You don’t have to flip burgers. But even if you did, at least it’s honest.”
“Well, maybe you haven’t noticed, David,” Nick spit out, “but it’s pretty hard to live on minimum wage.”
“Starsk,” Hutch broke in, trying to pour oil on the troubled waters. He knew that Starsky really loved his little brother, but their differences were just so great sometimes. Nick simply could not understand the position he sometimes put Starsky in. “This isn’t solving the immediate problem.”
“No shit,” Starsky said. He visibly took control of himself, then turned back to his brother. “You can’t stay here, Nick. I can’t harbor a fugitive. Either you go back, or –”
“Or you’ll take me in? Arrest me? Send your own brother back east to face the music?”
“It’s the right thing to do,” Starsky said quietly.
“Don’t tell me about the ‘right’ thing to do, David!” Nick stood up and grabbed his suitcase. “Fine. You won’t help me. I get it, already. I’ll figure something else out.” He made it all the way to the door and had it open before Starsky managed to get up.
“Will you at least keep me informed of how you are?”
“Why should you care?” Nick demanded. “My own big brother, and your freakin’ badge means more to you than I do!”
Hutch watched this by-play, wondering if he should say anything or not. Starsky’s relationship with Nick was complicated, and he was, after all, an outsider.
“Nicky,” Starsky said, going toward him, “wait. Come on. Sit down, let’s talk about this. Maybe we can think of something....” he looked inquiringly at Hutch.
Taking that as an invitation to get involved, and pretending not to see the murderous look Nick gave him, Hutch said, “Huggy?”
“Maybe....” Starsky said thoughtfully.
Nick looked from one to the other. Another example of the almost psychic connection Davy has with this guy. That damned shorthand way they got of talking to each other, like they know what the other one’s thinking...
With no further conversation, Hutch picked up the phone and dialed a number. After a moment, he said, “Hug? Hutch. You got a safe place where somebody could stay a day or two without being noticed?” He raised his eyes to Starsky, and Nick saw his brother relax, though Hutch had said nothing and made no movement to indicate whether Huggy had said yes or no. “Okay. Yeah, that’s great, Hug. Thanks. Be there in 15 minutes.” He replaced the phone. “Fairmont.”
“Seedy, but livable,” Starsky said. “And discreet.” He picked his jacket up off the chair. “Come on, Nicky. This’ll buy us some time to figure something else out. If anybody’s looking for you, they’d probably go to Ma’s first and then try here. It’s better if you’re not around.”
“Wait a minute,” Nick said. “Where are we going?”
“A hotel run by a pal of Huggy’s. Nobody’ll ask questions. You hang out there while me and Hutch talk about what to do. Nobody’ll bother you there.”
“While you and Hutch talk about what to do?” Nick said angrily. “What about me, big brother? Don’t I get a vote?”
“Not in this case,” Starsky said evenly. “We’re gonna do this my way or not at all. Remember last time you visited, Nicky? Who’s the home team and who’s the visiting team?”
Nick realized that he was facing that united front again – or still – and that if he wanted his brother’s help at all, he’d better give in. So he did, but not too gracefully.
Starsky and Hutch delivered him to the Fairmont, and Starsky told him in no uncertain terms that he’d better lay low until they came back for him.
Back at Starsky’s apartment, Hutch got a couple of beers for them from the kitchen and sat down across from his partner. “What do you think?”
Starsky shook his head miserably. “I don’t know, Hutch.”
“Is he telling the truth?”
“I don’t know –” Starsky began, but the phone rang, and he stopped to answer it. “Ma? Ma, is that you? What’s the matter?” A pause. “It’s okay, Ma, he’s here...No, not with me. He’s at a hotel...Because I’m a cop, that’s why, and I can’t....” Starsky raised his eyes to Hutch, who returned the look with sympathy. He could imagine what Starsky’s mother was saying to him. “Are the cops lookin’ for him? Oh, terrific....” He listened for a while again, then said, “We’ll figure something out, Ma, okay? Don’t worry about Nick, he always lands on his feet somehow. Okay. Yeah, I love you, too.”
“Are the cops looking for him?” Hutch asked as soon as Starsky hung up the phone.
His partner shook his head. “Worse than that. Spider McGinnis is lookin’ for him.”
“A player, back home. In the big leagues. Last time Nicky was here, he bragged to me how he knew all these big-timers in the neighborhood. He was tellin’ me how he sold hot goods to the folks who couldn’t afford retail prices, that he was some kinda modern-day Robin Hood type....” Starsky stopped and sighed. “Soon as he said Spider’s name, I knew he was in deep. He did, too, I think. But he blamed me for runnin’ out on him and said I’d never been there for him. Didn’t give me a chance to say anything.”
“So why would this Spider character be looking for him now?”
“Apparently the guy he shot was one of Spider’s henchmen. Nicky didn’t tell us quite the whole story. The reason he was struggling over the money with the guy was they were arguing over how much of it was Nicky’s take. Seems that Nicky wanted more than Spider had agreed to give him.”
Hutch sighed, too, and rubbed his eyes. “Just how big a ‘player’ is McGinnis? Big enough to have West Coast connections?”
“So we can expect a visitor or two?”
“Would they know about you?”
Starsky gave a wan grin. “Even in a city this size, ‘Starsky’ ain’t exactly a common name. Yeah, they’d know. It’s not the law looking for my little brother, buddy. We got a problem.”
“Did he take off with some of their money?”
“Ma didn’t know that for sure, but that was the impression she got from Spider’s goon who came by lookin’ for Nicky,” Starsky said.
“Shit.” Hutch was silent for a moment, thinking. “So what might they do?”
“Rough him up. Maybe break something to teach him a lesson. Maybe worse than that. I haven’t been home in a long time, Hutch. I don’t know what kind of stuff Spider’s doing now.”
“I don’t suppose you being a cop would change their minds....”
Starsky laughed ruefully. “No.”
“Could we make Nick give the money back? Would that do any good?”
“It might keep him alive. They’d still want to make an example of him.” Starsky got up and paced restlessly. “Damn it, Hutch, why does he do this? Dad was a cop, I’m a cop, Ma’s a decent lady. How did Nicky turn out like this?”
Hutch didn’t answer, knowing Starsky was mostly just venting his frustration. But then Starsky stopped, and turned, and sat down where he could look Hutch in the eye.
“He blames me.”
“For runnin’ off and leavin’ him. For not being his stand-in father. For anything that goes wrong, I guess....” Starsky ran a hand through his already-rumpled hair.
“It’s not your fault,” Hutch said quietly.
“Maybe it is,” Starsky said. “I took off when Nicky was just a kid. Hell, he couldn’t have been more than 12 or 13 when I moved out here.”
“And by then, he was already hanging around with people he shouldn’t have been hanging around with,” Hutch said, having heard the story many times before.
“But if I’d stayed home, maybe I could have done something.”
“I don’t know.”
“Starsk,” Hutch said, leaning forward and putting hand on his partner’s arm, “you’re not his dad. You’re his brother. It’s not your fault your dad died. It’s not your fault Nick took this road. It wasn’t your responsibility to raise him. You were just a kid yourself.”
“Maybe I could’ve been a good influence on him. Maybe I could’ve just been there.”
“And maybe you’d have wound up just like him,” Hutch suggested.
Starsky stared at him for a moment. Then he sighed. “Maybe so.”
“I don’t think it would have changed anything if you had stayed, Starsk. Nick’s just the way he is. If he blames you, it’s because he doesn’t want to blame himself.”
Starsky shook his head miserably.
“He resents me, you know.”
Starsky looked up, surprised. “Resents you? For what?”
“For us. Our relationship. Haven’t you seen the way he acts around us? It’s not you, buddy. He loves you. He practically worships you. But I think,” Hutch paused, wanting to phrase it just right, finally finishing, “he thinks you and I are closer than you and he are.”
Starsky considered this. “We are.”
“Yeah. So look at it from his point of view, buddy. If Nick had a friend he told things to that he didn’t tell you, if he had a friend who understood him better than you did, who could read his mind when you couldn’t, who he turned to instead of you, shutting you out, wouldn’t that bug you?”
“Do I do that? Shut him out?”
“You just did,” Hutch pointed out. “You sent him off to cool his heels while you and I figure out what to do.”
“But you’re my partner –” Starsky stopped. “No. It’s more than that. You and I are more brothers than Nick and I ever were, even when we were kids. We had different friends, different philosophies, different goals in life. I love him, but....” he stopped again.
“But you don’t understand him,” Hutch finished. It was not a question.
Starsky nodded miserably.
“Maybe you could try understanding him, Starsk.”
Starsky frowned, puzzled.
“What do you guys talk about, buddy? Have you ever talked about your dad dying to him? Have you ever talked to him about his friends, what he does for fun, what he dreams about? Do you know what he wanted to be when he grew up?”
“Joe Durniak’s who he wanted to be,” Starsky said sourly. “He wanted a big car and flashy clothes and plenty of money and girls.”
“That’s what he said he wanted,” Hutch said. “Maybe what he really wanted was respect.”
Starsky’s frown deepened. Then he sighed and rumpled his hair again. “Dammit. How do you do that, Hutch? You’re right, you know. We never talked about Dad. I don’t know nothin’ about my own brother, when it comes down to it.”
“First, let’s solve the immediate problem,” Hutch suggested. “Then we’ll worry about how you patch up your relationship with Nick.”
“Yeah. Okay.” Starsky looked at the phone. “S’pose I oughta just bite the bullet and call Spider?”
“Would it do any good?”
Starsky shrugged. “I don’t know.” He picked up the phone and set it on his lap, then dug around in a drawer for a few minutes and finally came up with a crumpled little spiral-bound notebook. He opened it, found the number he wanted, and dialed. After a few moments, he said, “It’s David Starsky. Mike Starsky’s son. Let me talk to Spider.” He raised his eyes to Hutch, who waited patiently. This time the pause was longer, but finally Starsky said evenly, “It’s David Starsky, Spider. Yeah. Tell me your side of this misunderstanding with my brother Nick.”
Starsky listened without comment for several minutes, breaking his silence with only an occasional “Uh-huh.”
Finally, he said, “What would it take to make things right, Spider?” He nodded a couple of times, then motioned to Hutch for a pen. Hutch produced one from his shirt pocket and handed it over. Starsky switched the phone to his other ear so he could write, and scribbled something on a blank page of the little notebook.
“Do I have any guarantee you won’t go ahead and have your boys do something damaging to my brother, even if we do what you say?” Starsky asked after several more minutes of listening. Hutch could tell by the look on his face that the guarantee wasn’t satisfactory. “Dammit, Spider, I don’t care about your reputation. I care about my brother!” More silence, then Starsky sighed. “Okay. I’ll talk to him.” Then with a sardonic laugh, he said, “No, I’m not going to tell you where he is. I’m not that stupid.” He hung up, sighed heavily, and handed the pen back to Hutch.
“Well?” Hutch asked impatiently when Starsky continued to just sit there and stare at his blue tennis shoes.
“Nicky’s cut of the $2,000 was supposed to be $200,” Starsky said at last. “He took $500. Spider wants it back. All of it. Even Nick’s cut. And he wants Nicky to deliver it, in person, alone.”
“So his goons can beat hell out of him,” Hutch said.
“What do you want to do?”
Starsky set the phone back on the table and propped his chin on his hand wearily. “I don’t know, Hutch. Nicky probably don’t even have that much money to his name. And even if he did, he’s not gonna want to go face Spider and his boys all alone. God knows what the bastard’d do to him. It’s not only the money. It’s shooting Jocko.”
“Jocko’s the goon Nick had the fight with?” Hutch said, mostly for his own benefit.
Starsky nodded morosely. “Not only a goon. Jocko’s Spider’s main goon. His number one enforcer. Gettin’ shot by a two-bit runner don’t look good, to say the least.”
“No,” Hutch agreed. He waited, letting Starsky work things out in his own mind.
“He’s gonna want to make an example of Nick,” Starsky continued, his eyes back on his shoes. He was silent for a moment, then spat, “Dammit!” and slammed his fist against the arm of the couch.
“Whoa, babe,” Hutch said, knowing the time had come to step in. He put a hand on Starsky’s shoulder and squeezed reassuringly. “Take it easy.”
Starsky jerked away and leapt to his feet, pacing back and forth. “Take it easy? Are you out of your mind? Some son-of-a-bitch in New York wants to break my baby brother’s legs and do God knows what else to him and you want me to take it easy?”
Okay. Gentle didn’t work. Let’s try rough. “Dammit, Starsky, listen to yourself!” Hutch said, coming to his own feet and letting his blue eyes flash fire at his partner. “You sound like a worried mommy instead of a cop. Think like a cop! And come up with a solution instead of whining about your ‘baby’ brother, who made this mess himself, may I remind you?”
Starsky whirled, but he stopped pacing. After glaring holes in Hutch for about a minute, he relaxed, ran his hands through his hair again, then rubbed his eyes. He sank back down on the couch. “You’re right, Blondie.” He even grinned. “Thanks. I was almost in orbit there for a minute or two.”
Hutch returned the grin, relieved. “I noticed.”
“So do you have any suggestions?”
“We could go with him. At a discreet distance,” Hutch said.
“Go to New York?” Starsky raised both eyebrows so far they almost disappeared under his curly hair. “Oh, sure. I can see Dobey approving a vacation right about now.”
“We could do it over the weekend,” Hutch said calmly.
“We got no jurisdiction in New York,” Starsky said. “As if you didn’t know that.”
“Not as cops. As...his brother and a friend,” Hutch said.
“Spider said he had to come alone.”
“They don’t have to know we’re there.”
Starsky considered, and then raised his eyes to Hutch. “This could be dangerous, Hutch. It isn’t your responsibility. Or your problem.”
“It’s your brother,” Hutch said. “Your problem, my problem....” He smiled and spread his hands. “What’s the difference?”
Unexpectedly, Starsky felt his eyes sting. He blinked a couple of times, then threw an arm around Hutch’s shoulders. “Thanks, buddy.”
There was no point in making plans until they’d talked to Nick, so they headed out to the Torino to go back to the Fairmont. They hadn’t driven far when Hutch noticed Starsky’s eyes returning to the rearview mirror again and again.
“We got company?” Hutch asked.
Hutch threw his arm casually across the back of the seat and turned just enough to be able to look out the rear window discreetly. “The visitors you mentioned we might get?”
“Can’t tell in the dark,” Starsky said. “But that’d be my guess.” Then, in that eerily calm voice he used when he was getting ready to do something crazy, he said, “Fasten your belt, Hutch.”
Hutch obeyed, then reached across Starsky and fastened his for him, too. “Ready,” he said tersely.
With no further warning, Starsky threw the car into a spin, tires squealing, and headed back the way they’d come, then took the first right and the next left at a suicidally high speed. Hutch simply hung on, knowing his partner was one of the best drivers in the department, with nerves of steel. His own nerves, now....
Starsky’s eyes flicked briefly to the mirror. He swore under his breath, then whipped around the next corner and threw the car into another spin, squealing to a stop in the center of the street. Yanking his belt off, he drew his gun and threw the door open. Hutch followed suit. In moments, the other car came around the corner and skidded to a stop inches from the front of the Torino.
Starsky pointed his gun at them over the opening between the door and the car frame and shouted, “Police! Come out with your hands on your heads!”
Instead, the driver of the other car threw it into reverse and started to squeal backward, but Starsky coolly took aim and shot the front right tire flat. With barely a glance at Hutch, he ran and yanked open the door of the other car. Hutch was right behind him, yanking the driver’s door open. They dragged the occupants out and flung them face down on the hood of the car.
“Okay, asshole, talk,” Starsky demanded, cuffing his prisoner and patting him down. He was unarmed.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” the man said in an aggrieved tone. “We ain’t done nothin’.”
“You were following us,” Starsky said, giving him a jerk. “Why?”
“I don’t even know who you are, man, why would I follow you?” the man said, turning his head as much as he could to look up at Starsky.
Starsky looked at Hutch, whose own prisoner, the driver, had remained completely silent – and was also unarmed. Hutch raised an eyebrow; then he bent over his prisoner and said, “Well, turkey?”
The man shrugged. “Am I under arrest, officer? If so, I want a lawyer. If not, let me go my way.”
The detectives exchanged glances again.
“We could run you in for reckless driving,” Starsky said to the driver.
“Lotta paperwork, and for what?” the man returned calmly. “A ticket. I pay it, and my insurance rates go up a little. Big deal.”
Starsky unlocked the cuffs and roughly helped the passenger stand up. “Go on. Get out of here. Don’t ever let me see you again.”
Hutch did the same with the driver, who elaborately straightened his clothes.
“Have a good evening, Sergeant,” he said to Hutch with studied politeness, giving Starsky a stiff salute. “What should I do about my tire, Officer?”
“Call Triple A,” Starsky said shortly. He and Hutch got back in the Torino, and Starsky backed, turned and left the two men and their car sitting in the street.
“At least they won’t be following us until they get their tire changed,” Hutch remarked, drawing a tight smile from Starsky.
“That’s the idea,” Starsky replied.
“You think they only wanted to find out where Nick was?”
“Must be,” Starsky said. “Otherwise, they’d have been packing heat.”
“Think it’s safe to go on out there now?”
Starsky’s eyes flickered back up to the mirror. “Yeah. But we’re not moving Nicky to my place, though that’s what I’d figured on doing. He’s safer where he is.”
Nick had been doing his best to wear a path in the ratty carpet of his room at the Fairmont, waiting for his brother and Hutch to call or come back. When they did knock on the door, his heart took such a leap of fear that he froze in his tracks and couldn’t answer.
“Nicky? It’s me,” David’s voice came through the door, breaking the spell. Nick hurried over and unlocked it, letting the two detectives in.
“You okay?” Starsky asked, taking in Nick’s sweating, strained face.
“No wonder,” Starsky said sourly, plopping down on the bed. “Well, sit down. We got some talkin’ to do.”
Nick sat in the room’s only chair, while Hutch took a seat on the bed next to his partner.
“I talked to Spider,” Starsky said. “He wants his money back. Every cent. And he wants you to deliver it. Alone.”
Nick’s eyes almost popped out of his head. “I can’t do that, Davy! He’ll kill me!”
Starsky held up his hand. “Hang on, Nick. He said if you did that, all would be forgiven. Even shooting Jocko.”
“We don’t believe him, Nicky,” Starsky said. “Me and Hutch’ll go with you. We won’t let him see us. But if anything goes wrong, we’ll be right there.”
Nick looked at first one, then the other, unable to speak. Finally, he said, in a low, trembling voice, “Both of you?”
“Both of us,” Hutch said.
“I’m going ‘cause you’re my brother,” Starsky said.
“And I’m going because he’s going,” Hutch said with a smile. “I can’t let the big lug go off on adventures without me. God knows what kind of trouble he’d get into.”
Starsky grinned a little at that, but Nick shook his head. “I can’t, David. I can’t put you into that kind of danger. Either of you.”
“It’s that or spend the rest of your life running from Spider McGinnis,” Starsky said. “He’s bigger than you think, Nicky. He’ll find you eventually. And he might not be in a forgiving mood when he does. It’s the only way.”
But Nick was shaking his head again. “No. I’ve got somewhere to go, David. He won’t find me. I’ll disappear. Forever, if necessary.”
Starsky went a little pale. “No, Nicky. No! You can’t just vanish. What about Ma? She’s goin’ nuts already, and she knows you’re safe. If she never heard from you again...God, Nicky, it’d kill her. You can’t do that.”
“You think she’d rather have me dead, David?” Nick asked in a low voice. “What do you think Spider’s planning to do with me when I show up alone with his $500? You thinkin’ he’ll just take it, say ‘Thanks very much’ and let me leave? Brother, you’re dreamin’.”
Starsky looked at Hutch helplessly.
“It’s only $500, Nick,” Hutch said. “Yeah, he probably plans to hurt you somehow, to make an example of you. We’ve dealt with his type before, remember, Starsk? When Huggy tried to do a favor for poor stupid Dewey?”
Starsky nodded morosely.
“We handled that. We’ll handle this. You gotta trust us, Nick.”
“Because you’re the home team?” Nick said. “You won’t be the home team in New York, David.”
“I know,” Starsky admitted. “But I knew Spider years ago. And he respected Dad, Nick. He used to be one of Joe’s guys when we were kids. He can be reasonable. Come on, Nick. We gotta do this our way.”
Nick looked from his brother to Hutch and back again. There was that united front. Two halves of a whole. He sighed. “Okay, David. We’ll do it your way.”
The three men got off the plane at Kennedy Airport in New York City a week later. Nick was horribly nervous, his head on a swivel. His brother was almost as nervous, but he didn’t show it the same way. Hutch hailed a cab for them and they dropped Nick off at his apartment before heading on to Starsky’s childhood home, where they were going to stay for the night.
“I’m warnin’ ya, Ma’s not gonna like this,” Starsky said to Hutch as they got their bags out of the cab’s trunk and started up the drive to the house.
“What won’t she like? Us being here, or what we’re going to do?”
“Either. Both. Take your pick. Let me do the talkin’, okay?”
“David?” Starsky’s mother had heard the cab and peeked through the curtains. Now she came running down the porch steps and into the arms of her oldest boy. He lifted her off her feet and swung her around before setting her down in the driveway and giving her the patented Starsky grin. “What are you doing here?” she exclaimed, reaching up to brush her hand over his curly hair and then patting his cheek. “Why didn’t you tell me you were coming?”
“It was kind of spur of the moment, Ma,” Starsky said. “We can only stay the weekend.”
Mrs. Starsky noticed Hutch then, and she gave him a bright smile. “Ken! Goodness, I haven’t seen you for years.”
“If you tell me how much I’ve grown, I’m going to start worrying about you,” Hutch teased gently, bending over to give her a kiss on the cheek.
She gave a girlish giggle. “Well, come on in, boys. Are you hungry? I’m just fixing supper.” But she stopped on the porch, her hand on the doorknob. “What about Nicky, David?”
“He’s at home in his apartment,” Starsky said. “We’ll tell you the rest inside.”
She nodded and led the way to the kitchen. She hadn’t been a cop’s wife for nothing. She waited until she had opened the oven and peeked at whatever she was cooking in there, and poured both Starsky and Hutch a cup of coffee, before sitting down at the kitchen table and giving her son an expectant look. “I’m waiting to hear the rest, David.”
He reached across the table and took her hands. “Nicky stole $500 from Spider McGinnis, Ma. And he got into a fight with Spider’s man Jocko, and shot him. Spider wants his money back and he wants Nicky to deliver it himself.”
She closed her eyes briefly and bit her lip, but that was all. She met Starsky’s eyes again. “What’s Nicky going to do?”
“He’s gonna give it back.”
She looked over at Hutch, then back at her son. “That’s why you and Ken are here? To back him up?”
She sighed and freed her hands, taking a sip from her own cup of coffee. Then she looked at Hutch for a long moment without speaking, long enough that he began to feel uncomfortable. Finally she reached out and took hold of his hand, giving it a squeeze, then she leaned over and kissed his cheek. “You’re a good boy, Ken. My boy’s real lucky to have you for a friend.”
Absurdly, Hutch felt his cheeks warm. He laughed self-consciously. “I don’t understand what you mean.”
“I think you do,” she returned, quietly. “None of this is anything to do with you. But you’re here anyway. I know why. It’s because you wouldn’t dream of letting David face this by himself. Any more than he’d let you if the situation was reversed.”
Hutch glanced at Starsky, and two pairs of blue eyes met understandingly. “Yeah, well, that’s what partners do, Mrs. Starsky,” Hutch said, still looking at Starsky.
“It’s ‘Rachel,’” she said, pretending to scold. “How many times do I have to tell you that, young man?”
All three of them laughed, and it broke the solemn spell. Starsky’s mother got up again, peered into the oven, and then pretended she had just noticed their two suitcases still sitting in the floor. “Well, David, are you two going to wash up for supper, or do I have to get rough with you?”
Starsky raised both hands in surrender. “No way, Ma. We’re goin’, we’re goin’. Can Hutch have Nicky’s room?”
“Yes, and there are fresh sheets in the linen closet. If I’d known you were coming,” she went on in that pretend-scolding tone, “I’d have had the rooms made up already.”
“We can do it, Mrs. – I mean, Rachel,” Hutch said. He grabbed up his suitcase and gave Starsky an affectionate punch in the arm. “Come on, Gordo, let’s get cleaned up already.”
Nothing more was said about Nick’s problems. They had a nice dinner – pot roast with cherry pie for dessert. Starsky was in seventh heaven and even Hutch had to admit he didn’t miss his health food when Starsky’s mother’s cooking was in front of him.
“You didn’t cook all this just for you,” Starsky said, almost accusingly.
Rachel Starsky had the grace to blush. “Well, no. Nicky called this morning and told me you were coming.”
“Then why’d you pretend you didn’t know?” her son inquired.
She laughed. “He said you wanted to surprise me. So I was surprised.”
“Ma, you’re just too much,” Starsky said with a grin, giving his attention back to his pie. But a moment later, he stopped chewing again and said, “So why didn’t you ask Nicky about –”
“Don’t talk with your mouth full, David,” his mother said calmly. “I wanted to hear it from you, okay? Now let’s just have a nice visit. We’ll worry about the rest tomorrow.”
Hutch smothered a grin at seeing Starsky getting scolded by his mother. Starsky noticed and gave him a brief glare, but he wasn’t serious and Hutch knew it.
They spent the rest of the evening listening to Starsky’s mother catch him up on all the neighborhood news, while he told her highly edited versions of things that he’d been doing in L.A. He left the Gunther incident out completely. In retrospect, now that it was way too late, Hutch felt guilty that he’d never once thought of calling Starsky’s mother with the news that her son was that badly injured. He could have died...hell, he had died for a few minutes. And she never even knew he was hurt.
What the hell was I thinking of? Revenge, that’s what. I was too busy keeping my own grief at bay to worry about hers...
“Hutch? What’s wrong?”
“Huh? Oh, nothing. I guess I’m just tired,” Hutch said, forcing a yawn. “Been a long day.”
Starsky was not convinced, but his mother was.
“Oh, Ken, here I am yammering away while you boys are trying to be polite. Go to bed, both of you. We can visit some more tomorrow.” She shooed the both of them upstairs and settled down on the couch with a copy of National Enquirer.
Starsky let Hutch have the bathroom first and waited until Hutch had gotten into bed before he came in and unceremoniously plopped onto the foot of the bed. “Okay, Hutch. Give. What was that all about?”
“What?” Hutch asked innocently.
“Don’t bat your baby blues at me, Blintz. You know damn well what I’m talking about. What you were worrying about downstairs. You didn’t hear a thing we were saying, did ya?”
Hutch regarded his partner for several moments before speaking. Finally, he said, “I was just thinking how much you weren’t telling your mom. And how I should have called her when Gunther shot you. And how I didn’t call her, because I was too busy thinking about what I thought I was losing to worry about what she might be losing.”
Starsky dropped his eyes to the patchwork quilt and played idly with a loose thread for a moment before answering. “I’m glad you didn’t call her. She’d only have freaked out. There wasn’t anything she could have done.”
“But Starsk, if you’d....” Hutch couldn’t even say the word, all these months later. “She wouldn’t have gotten a chance to say...to say goodbye.”
“But I didn’t die,” Starsky said, looking up again. “I didn’t die, Hutch. You wouldn’t let me.”
Hutch stared at him, uncomprehending.
Starsky fixed his eyes on an old Farrah Fawcett poster still hanging on the wall of Nick’s room. “People don’t think you can hear anything when you’re in a coma. But you can. Not everything. But you’re kind of aware of who’s in the room. Sometimes you understand what they’re saying. Their voices fade in and out. A coupla times, I knew you were there. And when my heart stopped–” He paused when he saw Hutch’s expression. “Yeah, I remember bits and pieces. Not everything, like I said. When they brought me back, the first thought I remember havin’ was, ‘I couldn’t do that to Hutch. He’d blame himself for the rest of his life for not keepin’ me from gettin’ shot. I can’t die.’”
“So, I figure, as long as one of us is around to pull the other one back, we’re safe, buddy. We’re gonna make it. We always have.” Starsky got up. “’Night, Hutch.”
He left without another word, flipping the light switch off as he went through the door. Hutch lay in the dark for a long time before he could go to sleep.
Nick called early in the morning. “I’ve talked to Spider,” he told Starsky. “He wants me to meet him at 7 tonight. At his office.”
“Okay,” Starsky said. “Me and Hutch’ll go scope it out this afternoon and figure out where we can hide.”
“There ain’t nowhere to hide there, David,” Nick said desperately. “It’s inside a damn warehouse. Place’ll be deserted that time of night and it’s tighter than a drum. That’s where he keeps all his hot goods.”
“Nicky, have some faith in me and Hutch, will ya?” Starsky said impatiently. “You act like we’re a coupla rookies fresh out of the academy. We’ll figure something out, okay?”
“Okay. What’d you tell Ma?”
“I told her the truth,” Starsky said.
“What? Are you nuts, David?”
“Nope. What’d ya want me to do, lie? She knows the score. She’ll be all right. Now you get that cash together and I’ll call you back after me and Hutch figure out what we’re gonna do.”
Nick reluctantly gave his brother the address of the warehouse, and after several more dire warnings about the difficulty of gaining access to it without getting caught by Spider, he finally hung up. Starsky shook his head as he replaced the receiver. “How come crooks are so dumb?” he asked Hutch.
Hutch almost choked on his coffee. He grinned at Starsky. “That’s a hell of a way to talk about your ‘baby’ brother, buddy.”
“Well, he is. How the hell does he get into these stupid messes, anyway?”
That didn’t seem to be a safe question to answer, so Hutch took refuge in his coffee again.
Nick hadn’t exaggerated the security at the warehouse. Starsky and Hutch caught a cab there so there wouldn’t be any chance of someone recognizing Rachel’s car, and Starsky had pulled a ball cap low over his curly hair and put on his sunglasses in hopes that Spider, should he happen to be around, wouldn’t recognize him. The two of them strolled down the sidewalk, cased the alley, and looked over the buildings on both sides of the warehouse. It seemed impenetrable.
“Now what?” Hutch asked.
“Must be a way. There’s always a way,” Starsky said stubbornly. He went back down the alley, Hutch behind him, and stood looking at the dock doors. “Burglar alarm,” he said to Hutch, pointing.
“I see it.”
“We could disconnect that, and then we could break in without them knowing,” Starsky said.
Hutch raised an eyebrow. “Break in, Sergeant? Isn’t that illegal?”
Starsky grinned. “A little.”
“I still don’t see how we could get in. It’s not a matter of just kicking it in, you know, Starsk. Those are steel doors.”
“I was thinking of that door,” Starsky said, indicating the walk-in door next to the dock. It had a glass panel. “We could bust that out and pick the lock.”
Hutch shook his head. “Make a lotta noise, too.”
“Not if ya do it right. That’s the only way I see.”
Hutch shrugged. “Okay. We’ll give it a try.”
Nick, who had been inside the warehouse, gave them a sketch of the layout so they could find Spider’s office if necessary. By evening, he was a nervous wreck, but Starsky had that eerie calm that Hutch had seen before when the odds were completely against them. They let Nick leave first, then they followed, parking a block away and walking the rest of the distance.
They waited outside the door for ten minutes, to give Nick time to get to the office on the other side of the warehouse. Then Starsky produced a glass cutting tool and disabled the burglar alarm before carefully cutting a hole in the glass of the access door. Hutch watched, amazed.
“Where and when did you learn to do this?” he whispered.
Starsky grinned. “I haven’t always led a blameless life, buddy.” He finished the job and removed the piece of glass, reaching through and tripping the lock. The door swung open soundlessly. “Told you there was always a way,” he said over his shoulder. He drew his gun and Hutch followed suit. They stepped through and silently made their way across the warehouse to the office. A shaft of light spilled through the doorway. The two men crouched behind some boxes and strained their ears to hear what was going on. At first there was nothing but silence, and Starsky crept a bit closer to try to see in.
Jocko had met Nick at the door and escorted him to the office. His left arm was still in a sling and he’d been none too happy to see Nick, but he hadn’t said anything to him. Once they were in the office, Nick saw that Spider had surrounded himself with several of his goons – six, to be exact, not counting Jocko.
Nick wet his lips and tried a smile, but it didn’t work. Instead, he reached into his pocket for the envelope containing the $500. “Here’s your money, Spider,” he said, trying to keep his voice level. Jocko took the envelope and handed it to Spider, who took it, but didn’t look inside.
He leaned back in his chair and regarded Nick with glittering eyes. “You’re alone, Nick?”
Nick nodded nervously. “Just like we agreed.”
“I see.” Spider gestured to a couple of the men. “Go check. Look under and behind everything in the place, boys. Not that I don’t trust you,” he said to Nick, “but I like to be sure of things.”
Nick swallowed hard. He knew that David and Hutch had to be inside and concealed somewhere by now. If Spider’s guys found them...
The men went out of the office, and Spider smiled at Nick. “You’re nervous, Nick. What’s wrong?”
Nick laughed nervously. “Wouldn’t you be nervous if you were me, Spider?”
Spider looked him up and down and shrugged. “I wouldn’t be you, Nick. I’ve got more sense than you do.”
Starsky heard the instructions just in time to crawfish backward and grab Hutch. He gestured with his head, and the two of them hastily concealed themselves behind some boxes. Spider’s men split up and systematically checked every crook and cranny of the warehouse, but they were moving away from Starsky and Hutch. Putting his lips close to Hutch’s ear, Starsky whispered, “What are we gonna do?”
“Stay ahead of them,” Hutch whispered back.
By keeping a careful eye on the two men and moving silently, the detectives were able to shift hiding places and keep from getting discovered. Eventually, the two men returned to the office and reported the place was empty.
Spider steepled his fingers and looked at Nick speculatively. “I find it hard to believe your brother let you come alone,” he said. “I saw him and another man at your mother’s house earlier today.”
“I told him you said I had to come alone,” Nick said. “I brought your money back and I came alone, as we agreed. What else do I have to do, Spider?”
“That’s a good question,” Spider said. “Isn’t that a good question, Jocko?”
“Yeah,” Jocko said, glaring at Nick.
Nick felt his heart speed up.
“Nick, you didn’t really believe I could let somebody do me out of $500 and just let him walk away, did you?” Spider asked, with that glittering smile. “You shot one of my best men, Nick. Look at him. Look at Jocko. He can’t do me much good until that heals. That’s costing me money, Nick. It’s gonna come to a lot more than the $500. I have to make sure,” he leaned forward and stared at Nick, “that nobody ever does something that stupid again. Ever.”
He made a gesture. “Boys?”
Nick made a break for the door – and he almost made it – but just as he cleared the door, one of the men caught his arm and gave him such a blow to the temple that his vision doubled and he sank to his knees.
Starsky and Hutch both burst from their hiding places, guns drawn. “Freeze! Police!” Starsky said, leveling his gun at the man who had hit Nick.
“There’s six of them, Davy,” Nick gasped, shaking his head to clear it. But before he could get to his feet, all six were outside the office and somebody had shot a gun. Somebody else hit Nick again, throwing him backward into the office wall.
Hutch used his gun as a club to fell the man who had come at him, hit another one a roundhouse punch that sent him to the floor, and ducked just in time to avoid getting beaned with a baseball bat held by a third man. He spared a glance at his partner, who had jumped over some boxes to get to Nick and was standing between him and the other men. He didn’t have time to look long, though, because another one was coming at him.
Starsky threw punches left and right to keep Spider’s goons from getting to Nick, who was still woozy from the punch he’d taken. Behind him, Nick finally got his head clear enough to stagger to his feet and try to hold up his end. He tried to follow his brother’s lead, but he hadn’t been in as many fights as Starsky had. Starsky was used to working as a team with Hutch, and the two of them had this thing down pat. Nick stumbled toward Hutch, who seemed to be more outnumbered than Starsky. But just as he got there, swaying, the goon with the bat saw him and drew back the bat.
Starsky looked up just then, just in time to see Jocko draw a gun and aim at Hutch, who was still fighting off two of the other men. He yelled, “Hutch!”, yanked his own gun out of the holster and shot, all in one movement.
Jocko went down, but had pulled off a shot just as he got hit. The shot went wide and the man with the bat broke his swing halfway, giving Nick a glancing blow instead of a full force hit. Coupled with the blow he’d already received, the impact knocked him cold anyway. His knees buckled, and he fell.
Hutch dove behind a box, shooting as he went. Two more of the goons were hit, and over the commotion, Spider yelled, “Come on, let’s get out of here. I hear sirens!”
Starsky scrambled over the boxes and prone forms of Spider’s men – none were dead, only injured – and pulled Nick up into his arms. “Nicky! Nicky, talk to me!” There was no response.
“We gotta get him to a hospital,” Hutch said, opening one of Nick’s eyes to peer in. Spider and his other men had left at a run, so Hutch hurried into the office and used the telephone to call an ambulance.
Before it arrived, the police did. Someone driving by had heard the shooting and called them.
“Freeze! Hands in the air!”
Both Starsky and Hutch complied instantly. “We’re cops, too,” Starsky said. “LAPD. Got a badge in my pocket.”
“Okay, but nice and easy,” the New York officer said, keeping the gun trained on them.
Starsky reached into his hip pocket and produced his badge. Hutch waited until the cop had examined it to reach for his.
“You guys on assignment?” the cop inquired, finally holstering his own gun.
“It’s a long story, Officer, and my brother’s injured,” Starsky said, indicating Nick. “We’re waiting for the ambulance.”
The cop nodded to his partner, and two other cops that had followed them in. Those three cuffed Spider’s men, who had begun to come around, and got them to their feet and out the door. The first cop knelt next to Nick and looked him over. “It doesn’t look good,” he said to Starsky. “You’ll have to make a statement, but it can –” he broke off as the ambulance siren wailed out in the street. “It can wait until you’ve got your brother taken care of. You,” he said to Hutch, “better come on down to the precinct with me.”
Hutch glanced at Starsky’s pale, strained face. He hated to leave him to go to the hospital with Nick alone, just in case...
“It’s okay, Hutch,” Starsky said. “Better do what he says.”
Another officer accompanied Starsky and Nick to the hospital and took Starsky’s statement in the waiting room. Starsky was so worried about Nick – they’d rushed him into a treatment room without telling Starsky anything – that he hardly knew what he was saying in response to the officer’s questions. He answered mechanically.
Hutch wasn’t faring much better at the precinct. The cop there kept asking him why he and Starsky hadn’t checked in with the local police before going off on their “jaunt,” as he phrased it, alone.
“There wasn’t time. I told you that,” Hutch said for the eighth or ninth time. “We had to act immediately.”
“But if you knew this was liable to happen, you should have called us before you went in,” the officer repeated.
“Officer, haven’t you ever made an unwise decision on the street?” Hutch finally asked impatiently. “Okay, we should have called you. We should have checked in. But we didn’t. We goofed, okay? How many times do we have to go over this? My partner’s brother’s hurt, and my partner needs me. Meanwhile, we sit here going over the same damn thing over and over again!”
Another officer knocked on the door of the interrogation room and poked his head in. “They check out, Kelly.”
“Thanks,” Kelly said, closing his notebook. “You’re free to go, Hutchinson. You and Starsky’ll need to come back tomorrow to sign your statements. Want to swear out a complaint against McGinnis?”
“Not tonight,” Hutch said angrily. “You mean we’ve been sitting here waiting for you guys to verify our bona-fides?”
Kelly shrugged, almost apologetically. “Procedure, Hutchinson. You know the drill.”
“Procedure,” Hutch muttered. He pushed past Kelly and headed for the door.
Starsky was in the waiting room, his arm around his mother, when Hutch arrived at the hospital. He sat on Starsky’s other side. “Any news, buddy?”
Starsky shook his head. “Not yet. They’re still working on him.”
Rachel Starsky was pale, but composed. She clutched a handkerchief in one hand and held onto her older son with the other one. Starsky had already told her the short version of what had happened.
Finally, a doctor arrived. “Mrs. Starsky?”
“Yes,” Rachel said, rising. Starsky stood with her, keeping his arm around her.
“Your son’s in recovery. He’s got a concussion and a nasty lump on his head, but he should be all right.”
She closed her eyes and swayed, but Starsky kept a firm hold on her.
“Can we see him?” he asked.
“We’ll let you know when we’ve moved him to a room,” the doctor said. He reached out to give Rachel a pat on the shoulder, then left. Starsky steered his mother back to a seat, and she finally broke down, sobbing softly into her handkerchief. Starsky patted her back and made soothing sounds.
About an hour later, a nurse came to tell them Nick was alert and in a room. All three of them went up to see him.
Rachel broke away from Starsky and hurried to the side of the bed. She picked up Nick’s hand and kissed it, then his face, murmuring his name over and over.
Nick squeezed her hand, but he was shooting daggers at his brother with his eyes.
Not understanding, Starsky moved closer to the bed. “How ya doin’, Nicky?”
“I’ll live,” Nick said shortly. “No thanks to you, brother.”
“Nick!” Rachel scolded. “What’s got into you?”
“Why don’t you ask him?” Nick said angrily.
Rachel turned her head to look at Starsky, who was as puzzled as she was. He shrugged helplessly.
Nick looked from one to the other and finally spat, “You chose Hutch!”
“What in the hell are you talkin’ about?” Starsky demanded. “What do you mean, I chose Hutch?”
“Back there. In the warehouse. Denny’s aimin’ a bat at me and Jocko’s aimin’ a gun at Hutch, and whose name did ya call out, David? Whose ass did ya save?” When Starsky didn’t reply, Nick repeated, louder, “Whose, David?”
Involuntarily, Starsky turned to look at Hutch.
“See? That’s what I’m talkin’ about,” Nick growled.
“I don’t wanna hear your lame excuses,” Nick snarled at him. “I don’t even wanna look at ya right now. Get out of my room. Both of you!”
Starsky still hesitated, but Hutch got hold of his arm and tugged. “Come on, Starsk.”
Unhappily, Starsky allowed Hutch to lead him away. “What’s the matter with him, Hutch?” Starsky asked on the way downstairs. “Do ya s’pose...did I really....”
Hutch discreetly maintained his silence until they got back to the waiting room. Then he gently pushed his partner down into a chair and sat in another, facing him. “Starsk, I don’t pretend to understand all the ins and outs of your relationship with Nick,” he said. “But I do understand one thing. Nick’s hurting. Not just physically. He’s angry and he’s hurt, because what he said back there is true, buddy. We were both in danger. Nick was too punchy to defend himself, and I was too busy to see Jocko pointin’ that gun at me. And when the chips were down, Starsk, it was my name you hollered, and it was my ass you pulled out of the fire.”
“But you’re my partner–”
“And he’s your brother, Starsky. Prior claim.”
Starsky shook his head. “No, Hutch. Out on the street, you and me’ve gotta watch each other’s backs. We been doin’ it for years. It’s automatic. Protect your partner first. Worry about the other people after that.”
“Not when one of the other people is your brother,” Hutch said in a low voice. “How do you think he feels, buddy? I’m not blaming you. I’d have done exactly the same thing you did, and you know it. I’m trying to tell you how he feels.”
“Like he’s not as important to me as you are,” Starsky said.
Starsky was silent, looking down at the floor. When he raised his head, his eyes were bright. “He’s not.”
“It may not be what he wants to hear – or what you want to hear – but it’s the truth,” Starsky insisted. “You and me, Hutch...when Terry died, who stuck by me day and night and kept me sane? You. When Prudholm poisoned me, who stuck by me then and let me do the one thing – hunting him down – that kept me sane? You.”
“When Gillian was murdered, who kept me sane?” Hutch added quietly. “Who stuck his neck out and propped me up while I kicked the heroin after Forrest’s stunt?” He sighed and ran a hand through his hair. “We got a lot of history of pulling each other’s asses out of the fire, partner.”
“And Nicky can’t compete with that,” Starsky said. “I love him, Hutch. He’s my brother. But....” He paused and shook his head. “But you’re my partner. How the hell do I explain that to Nicky?”
“Maybe you shouldn’t, babe,” Hutch said. “I don’t think he’d understand. Maybe you better just figure out some way of making sure he knows you love him just the same as you always have, and that you had some brilliant master plan back there in that warehouse that would save us both at once.”
Starsky gave a ghost of a grin. “I didn’t have much time to make up a brilliant plan.”
Hutch laughed. “Yeah, well, he doesn’t have to know that.”
Rachel Starsky finally came and found them. “You boys ready to go home? You’ve had a big day.”
“How’s Nicky, Ma?” Starsky asked.
She sighed. “He’s sleeping now. They’re saying they may let him go home tomorrow if nothing goes wrong overnight. He’ll have to stay with me a couple of days, so there’s someone around....”
“Hutch and I have to get back to L.A.,” Starsky said, understanding. “We’re catching a late flight tomorrow night.”
She put her arm through his and gave it a little squeeze. “Let’s go home. I’m tired, even if you two aren’t. Let me get a cup of coffee, and then I have some questions to ask you.”
Starsky and Hutch exchanged looks, but no one said any more about it until they were comfortable in the Starsky living room, each with a cup of coffee.
Rachel leaned back and gave her son a long look. “All right, Davy. Tell me what that was all about there in Nicky’s hospital room. And don’t try to spare your poor old mother. I’m tougher than I look.”
Starsky smiled at her fondly. He told her why Nick had accused him of “choosing” Hutch over him. “I don’t know how to explain to him,” he finished, “how partners work on the street and why I did what I did. It wasn’t that I wasn’t aware of him being in danger, too....”
Rachel looked at Hutch, who was feeling that he ought to disappear discreetly. She seemed to sense that. “Ken, tell me something,” she said.
“What would you have done in that situation?”
“The same thing Stars...Dave did,” Hutch answered promptly. “Him yelling my name...that was a warning, to get my attention. He was backing me up, just like they trained us to do. It’s hard to explain, but there’s a certain note in his voice when he does that, and I just react. It’s like we –”
“Read each other’s minds,” Starsky finished without thinking, proving Hutch’s point for him.
Rachel nodded. “I remember once your father and his partner were involved in a hostage situation. Mike tried to sneak into the back door of this liquor store to catch the man by surprise, and his partner was supposed to keep the man’s attention at the front of the store. The man was holding the clerk in front of him as a shield, and Mike made some kind of noise accidentally. He turned, saw Mike, and pointed his gun at him. Mike’s partner had to make a split second decision, and he shot the man, barely missing the hostage, to keep him from hurting Mike.” She smiled. “That turned out all right, too. Nobody but the man got hurt.”
“But his brother’s life wasn’t on the line,” Starsky said quietly. “The hostage was a stranger.”
“Yes,” Rachel said, “but he took the risk, because his first duty, as he saw it, was to protect your father. His partner. When Mike told me about it, he had a similar reaction to Nicky’s. He was grateful, of course, that his partner saved him. But he felt guilty, and even a little angry, that the hostage came so close to being killed instead of him.”
“So how do I explain this to Nicky?”
Rachel reached out and stroked his curly hair gently. “I’m not sure you can, David. Tell him what you told me.” She turned to Hutch. “It may not make any sense to you, but I’m glad you two work that way. You keep my son alive out there, Ken, as much as he keeps you alive. Your lives are in each other’s hands. I don’t worry as much about my boy, knowing he’s got you watching his back.”
“Your mother’s a wise woman,” Hutch said to Starsky as they were parting company for the night an hour later. Rachel had gone to bed after giving both men a kiss good night and a fond pat on the shoulder each.
“Yeah,” Starsky said, shaking his head. “Sometimes I forget just how much.”
“She just kind of put the whole thing in perspective,” Hutch said. “I was feeling pretty guilty–”
“Not you, Hutch,” Starsky said, pretending amazement.
Hutch grinned a little. “Well, I was. I mean, if Nick had been killed, how would either of us have lived with that, knowing that you–”
“Whoa,” Starsky interrupted. “He wasn’t. And what if you had? How would I have lived with that?”
Hutch was silent for several moments. “We’ve both had to face that a time or two, buddy.”
“Yeah.” It was Starsky’s turn to be silent.
“I guess it’s like you said,” Hutch said. “We always make it. One of us always pulls the other’s tail to safety.”
The hospital did release Nick in the late afternoon on Sunday, only a couple of hours before Starsky and Hutch were due to catch their flight back to the West Coast. He was sullen and silent when Rachel brought him home, refusing to return the greetings of either his brother or Hutch.
“I’m going to get us some dinner,” Rachel said in a no-nonsense tone. “You boys need to talk. Ken, would you mind helping me?”
“Not at all,” Hutch said, grateful for the chance to escape. He cast a glance at Starsky, who made a “go on, I’ll be okay” motion with his hand. He followed Rachel into the kitchen, leaving Starsky alone with his brother.
“All right, Nicky, I’m going to explain this to ya,” Starsky said as soon as the door swung shut behind them.
“I’m not interested in your ‘explanations,’” Nick said, refusing to look at him.
“Tough shit. You’re gonna have to listen anyway,” Starsky said shortly. “First off, I want you to understand somethin’ real basic. Me and Hutch have been in a lot of dangerous situations. It’s a daily dose for us. If we didn’t watch each other’s backs, we’d have both been dead long ago. That’s what partners do.
“We’ve learned how to work together over the years, without a lot of talking about it. I can yell his name – just like I did in that warehouse, Nicky – and he’ll know what he needs to do without me sayin’ another word. Just like he did in that warehouse. I knew you were in danger. I was doin’ my best for both of you. If I’d yelled ‘Nick’ it wouldn’t have triggered the same automatic response in Hutch that me yellin’ his name did. Nicky,” his voice softened, and he reached toward his brother, but Nick shrank away, “you’re my brother. I love you.”
“Not as much as you love him!” Nick’s voice broke on the last word, and in the kitchen, Hutch raised his head from the salad he was making and started for the door, but Rachel grabbed his arm and shook her head at him. “You act like he’s your brother, instead of me!”
“He is my brother,” Starsky said. “Not instead of you. In addition to you. I’m real lucky that way, little brother. I got two of you. One by blood – and one by fate.”
Nick shook his head.
“Nick,” Starsky reached out again and took hold of his brother’s arm, whether he wanted him to or not. “Let me tell you something. I got shot a year ago. Shot up bad. With an automatic. You wanna know how many bullets they took out of me?”
Nick finally looked at him.
“A coupla dozen,” Starsky said. “It was an almighty close call. In fact,” he lowered his voice, conscious of his mother in the next room, “I was gone for a few minutes. They brought me back.”
Nick’s eyes widened. “You mean you...you died?”
Starsky nodded. “I don’t remember much. And I’ve never told Ma any of this –”
“I won’t tell her.”
“Nicky, I –” It was a lot harder to explain this to Nick than it had been to talk to Hutch about it, Starsky realized. Hutch understood. But would Nicky? “Hutch bein’ there...it brought me back. I mean, the doctors did the work...but you know, I could hear things sometimes. I knew he was there. I was in a coma, but I could still kinda hear, and I could still kinda think, and....” He stopped helplessly for a moment. “It was Hutch pulled me through. It’s what partners are supposed to do, but...well, me and Hutch are almost psychic with each other –”
“I’ve noticed,” Nick said bitterly.
“But that’s how we stay alive, Nick. Teamwork. Backing each other up. It’s gotta be instinct. You gotta act without thinking, ‘cause you don’t have time to think every time. It’s my responsibility to protect his life, even at the expense of someone else’s. Even at the expense of mine, if necessary....”
“Or mine?” Nick demanded.
“You got hurt, yeah, and I’d do anything to have kept that from happening, but if I stopped to weigh every action, or if Hutch did, out there on the street, one of us would be dead by now. We’ve had plenty of close calls when that’s exactly what would have happened. He’s saved my life, Nick, more times than I can keep count of. And not just that....” Starsky paused, remembering Terry, and Marcos, and dozens of other times. “He’s saved me. The part of me, in here,” he tapped his chest, “that I’d’ve lost by now if it wasn’t for Hutch and that instinct.”
Nick sat and just looked at him for several moments. Finally, he said in a low voice, “I guess...I guess that’s what bugs me, David. You two got this radar, or something, and me and you...we don’t.” He shook his head. “I s’pose I ought to be grateful he’s there for ya, instead of being mad about it. But...I don’t know, Davy. Dammit.” He looked down and added, so softly that Starsky almost didn’t catch the words, “I guess I’m a little...jealous of Hutch. Of how close you are. We...aren’t.”
“We could work on that, me and you,” Starsky said. “It’s not too late.” A twinkle came into his eyes. “Whaddya say? Wanna kiss and make up?”
Nick laughed, and this time, all the anger was gone. “I’ll make up, but I don’t wanna kiss ya, if ya don’t mind.”
Starsky, relieved, gave his brother a playful and very gentle punch in the arm.
“So what happens now with you and Nick?” Hutch asked once the plane was off the ground and they had settled in for the flight back to L.A.
“I think you were right,” Starsky said thoughtfully. “Me and Nick’ll never be Siamese twins, but we could be a lot closer than we are. I think maybe we can start tryin’ to do that now.”
“I’m wondering something, though,” Hutch said seriously, but with a tell-tale glint in his blue eyes.
“What?” Starsky asked.
“If I’m your brother now, that makes your mom my mom, too,” Hutch said, pretending to be working very hard at figuring all this out.
“Yeah?” Starsky said encouragingly, suppressing a grin.
“And your house,” Hutch hooked a thumb over his shoulder, indicating he meant the house in New York, “is my house, too.”
“Yeah,” Starsky said.
“Well, there’s only three bedrooms,” Hutch said. “One’s your mom’s, one’s yours, and one’s Nick’s.”
“That’s a problem,” Starsky agreed. “Maybe there’s a corner in the attic or basement we could squeeze you into.”
“Well, I was thinking we could put bunk beds into your room and share,” Hutch said.
“No way,” Starsky said. “You snore too loud. Besides, as the oldest –”
“I snore?” Hutch interrupted him. “You’re the snoring champion of the entire West Coast, buddy. I doubt you could even hear me over the symphony you play every night, no matter how loud I got.”
“As I was saying,” Starsky went on, finding it more difficult than ever to suppress his grin, “as the oldest, I should automatically get my own room. You share with Nicky. I gotta warn ya, though.”
“He wets the bed. Take the top bunk.”
Hutch dissolved into helpless laughter, drawing a few strange looks from other travelers, while Starsky gave up and laughed along with him.