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Take me back to Part II

 

The One Left Behind

By Sue David and Valerie Wells

 

Part III of IV

 

When Starsky woke up at St. Isodore's the next day, he wasn't sure where he was. He smelled bacon and eggs wafting under his door, but he still had no appetite. He pulled on his shoes and headed in the direction of the breakfast scent.

 

Father Dolan smiled at him as he walked into the kitchen. "Good morning, David. You look a little better. How's the head?"

 

"Hurts." He sat down at the kitchen table and ran his left hand through his unruly curls.

 

Father Dolan chuckled. "I'll bet. I made your breakfast."

 

"No thanks, but I'll take coffee if you have some."

 

"David, how long has it been since you really ate?"

 

Starsky thought about refusing to answer, but there was something disarming about Father Dolan. He changed his mind. "Dunno. Few days maybe. I'm just not hungry."

 

"Well, you're going to eat this. Don't argue with a man of the cloth." The priest put a plate full of breakfast in front of Starsky. Reluctantly, he picked up a fork and began to pick at the food while Father Dolan fetched him a cup of coffee.

 

"David, I don't mean to pry...."

 

"Then don't, Father." Starsky was about as sullen a character as he had encountered in a long time.

 

"Look, I couldn't help noticing your scars. Did you try to kill yourself, David?"

 

"What if I did? Is that so wrong?" Starsky took another bite of his breakfast, then he dropped the fork on the plate and shoved it back away from him, having eaten little.

 

"Life is God's most precious gift. He wouldn't like it if you threw that gift away."

 

"Well then, maybe God should think about that before taking away everything a man has to live for, Father." Starsky looked at him with eyes that were full of pain and loss.

 

~*~*~*~

 

Dobey knew that he wouldn't be able to keep Hutch in the hospital unless he gave him some way to help look for Starsky, so he had ordered Hill and Cavanaugh to drop everything else and devote themselves to the search, and to report everything they found to Hutch as long as they reported to their captain, too. He also told them to take their orders from Hutch, within reason, and to let him guide them in places to look and things to try.

 

Hutch chafed against the need to stay in the hospital, helpless to do anything to find Starsky, but he also knew that Hill and Cavanaugh were doing everything they could, and that he himself wouldn't be much good on the streets in his condition. With nothing else to do but lie there and worry, Hutch put his brain to work trying to guess where Starsky might go and what he might do in the state of mind he was in. He didn't like considering it, but it might be the only way he could help find his partner.

 

One thing he could do, and that was call his sister and tell her he was all right. But when he rang her house, her husband answered.

 

"Steve? It's Ken."

 

There was a stunned silence for several moments. And finally, Steve said, "My God, they said "

 

"I was dead. I know. I'm not. Is Karen there?"

 

"She's in the hospital on strict bed rest," Steve said. "They're afraid she'll go into labor too soon, and they're giving her drugs to hold it off. And when she heard you were dead "

 

Hutch bit his lip. "Damn. Will you tell her, please? Gently? And do you know how to find my folks?"

 

"We've got numbers for the hotels they're supposed to be staying at, but they haven't reached the first one yet."

 

"Leave a message then. Don't tell them anything that way, just have them call as soon as they arrive."

 

"I will," Steve said. "What in hell happened? Where are you now?"

 

"In Bay City." Hutch explained, as quickly as he could and without giving away any more than he had to, what had happened to him. Steve listened in silence, only whistling softly now and then at some of the details Hutch felt safe in sharing.

 

"Wow," Steve said when he finished. "You okay?"

 

"I will be," Hutch said. "Just make sure my folks know I'm not dead, will you?"

 

"Sure, Ken."

 

When Hutch hung up, he saw Cavanaugh waiting in the doorway, looking none too happy. "What?" he asked, replacing the receiver.

 

"We've gone over Starsky's place with a fine-tooth comb again and we can't find anything to tell us where he went," Cavanaugh said.

 

"Which clothes are missing?"

 

Cavanaugh looked even unhappier. "Honest, Hutch, I can't tell. Looks like most of 'em are still there to me, but I don't know what he's got "

 

"Then catalogue every item and bring the list to me," Hutch said. "I'll know."

 

"Everything?" Cavanaugh asked in dismay. "Why?"

 

"Because it might give me a clue where he went, that's why!" Hutch snapped. "Just do it!"

 

Cavanaugh put his hands up in surrender. "Okay, okay. We'll get right on it."

 

"Did you find his dad's gun? Old six-shot revolver, top shelf of his closet."

 

Cavanaugh shook his head, relieved he knew the answer to that one. "No. We searched his closet. It wasn't there."

 

"Okay. Good," Hutch said. "Then he can protect himself." He refused to think of what else Starsky might intend to do with the gun.

 

"We do have some good news," Cavanaugh ventured. "He cleaned out his bank accounts when he left. Savings and checking. He's got money, at least."

 

"Put an alert on his credit card, too," Hutch said. "He keeps his bills in the middle drawer of his desk and you can find the phone number there. If he uses it, we'll know where he is."

 

"Okay." Cavanaugh made a note to himself.

 

After he left, Hutch lay back and tried to tell himself that if Starsky had taken money, he must not intend to do himself harm. He was running, that was all. Running away from the pain of losing Hutch and losing Marjorie. He was blaming himself.

 

~*~*~*~

 

Although Father Dolan urged "David Banner" to stay in the rectory for another day, Starsky refused. He wanted to move on. He didn't want to stay anywhere for very long, and even the one night he'd been at the rectory made him restless and impatient.

 

But Dolan insisted he eat some lunch before he left, and Starsky reluctantly agreed. Still, he only pushed the food around on his plate again. He just had no appetite.

 

Dolan sat there and watched him not eating and finally said, "I wish you would let me help you. That is my business, you know."

 

"You can't help," Starsky said. "You can't bring them back."

 

"Who?"

 

"The people who've died because of me."

 

"No, I can't," Dolan said, wondering if this young man had been the cause of a car accident or what. "But perhaps I can give you some peace about it."

 

"I don't think so."

 

"David, you can't live your whole life blaming yourself for something that may not have been your fault. Please, tell me what you can."

 

Starsky shook his head. "I can't. Just that two people died because of me. I didn't kill them," he added, not wanting this man who had been kind to him to worry that he had a murderer in his home. "But it was my fault they died. And I can't forgive myself for that."

 

"Is that why you tried to take your own life?"

 

Starsky looked down at the scar on his left wrist, visible because he was wearing a short-sleeved shirt. And he shook his head. "No, Father. I didn't do this," he said, indicating the scar. "Someone else did that. The same person who killed Hu...my friend. And later tried to kill me and got someone else accidentally."

 

"But how is that your fault?"

 

"I didn't have my head on straight," Starsky said softly. "If I had, I could've prevented it. I can't say any more."

 

Dolan shook his head sorrowfully and said a silent prayer to St. Lydwina to bring peace to this young man's heart.

 

Starsky left immediately after the lunch he hadn't eaten and went back to the bus station. He wouldn't let Dolan give him a ride, though he offered. But when he got there, he decided against going to Lubbock after all. He had told Dolan too much, and that was one of the things he'd told him. After cashing in the ticket he headed back outside to start hitchhiking. Starsky was headed out of Texas to Oklahoma City.

 

~*~*~*~

 

"Hutch!" Cavanaugh burst into Hutch's room, followed closely by Hill, excitement all over both their faces. "His credit card was used in El Paso!"

 

Hutch struggled to a sitting position. "Where? What for?"

 

Cavanaugh looked down at the paper in his hand. "At an electronics store," he said. "He bought a boom box."

 

"A what?" Hutch snatched the paper out of Cavanaugh's hand and studied it.

 

"A boom box. You know, one of those portable radio/cassette "

 

"I know what a boom box is," Hutch snarled. "That wasn't Starsky. Somebody rolled him."

 

"You can't be sure of that," Hill began, but stopped at a look from Hutch.

 

"I can be sure of that. Starsky hates those things. Says they're cheap. He takes stereo equipment seriously. Didn't you notice the stuff in his apartment?" Hutch's hand shook a little as he looked down at the paper again. If someone had robbed Starsky, they might have hurt him. He didn't have his wallet, so he didn't have an ID, and maybe they'd gotten all his money, too. "Oh, God," he said quietly, feeling dread settle in the pit of his stomach.

 

"At least we know where to start lookin'," Cavanaugh offered.

 

"Alert the Texas State Police and the El Paso police," Hutch said. "Tell the credit card company that we want that card reported stolen and if it's used again, we want the person apprehended for questioning. Do it!" he added angrily, making Hill scurry for the telephone. To Cavanaugh, he said, "Where's the list of Starsky's clothes?"

 

Cavanaugh pulled several sheets of paper out of his jacket pocket and handed them over. Hutch studied it in silence for several minutes while Hill made the phone calls.

 

Reading to himself, Hutch realized Starsky's UMASS t-shirt, his white sweatshirt, the hideous yellow-and-black plaid shirt his mother had sent him for his birthday a couple of years ago, and at least three pairs of jeans were missing. He'd left his boots and dress shoes behind. He apparently hadn't taken a jacket....

 

"Are you sure all these jackets were in his apartment?" Hutch said suddenly.

 

"Yeah," Cavanaugh said. "Man, he's got a lot of jackets "

 

"He had to have taken a jacket," Hutch said, muttering, as he looked over the list again.

 

"We figure he musta took your varsity jacket," Cavanaugh said.

 

"My varsity jacket?" Hutch looked up.

 

"Your folks gave it to him," Cavanaugh said uncomfortably, dropping his eyes. "When they, uh...."

 

"When they cleaned out my apartment after they thought I was dead," Hutch finished. He knew about that. Dobey had told him, and then his parents had apologized profusely when they'd finally called last night. He wasn't worried about that. He'd never been one to put much value on possessions, anyway, and right now the information was more important. "Then he's probably wearing that," Hutch said, choking back the lump in his throat at the thought. The things Starsky had chosen to take with him were all symbolic. The UMASS t-shirt. He'd wanted to go to college there when he was a kid. The white sweatshirt was the one he'd been wearing when Terry died. The yellow plaid shirt his mother had given him, that he almost never wore, but kept because it had been a gift from her. And Hutch's varsity jacket. "Hill," he ordered the other detective, "give the Texas State Police the description of that jacket. He's wearing it."

 

~*~*~*~

 

Starsky was dropped off in downtown Oklahoma City and he wondered where to go. He hadn't really thought this through hell, he hadn't thought any of this through and he'd never set foot in Oklahoma City before. He had no idea what to do now.

 

He didn't want to just stand around looking stupid, either, so he started walking. Downtown was bustling with home-going office workers, and the streets, most of them one-way, were crowded with traffic trying to get out of downtown. Starsky was amazed at the number of cowboy hats and cowboy boots. Men in suits, carrying briefcases, wearing cowboy hats and boots. He grinned a little, then suppressed it. He didn't want the people to think he was laughing at them, and a lone man walking down the city streets grinning was an open invitation for the police to inquire into what he was doing. He definitely didn't want that.

 

At least there were plenty of people in jeans and sneakers, too, so he didn't stand out. He passed a big many-sided building in the heart of downtown and watched, amazed, as car after car pulled out of a parking garage underneath it. He saw a sign pointing to "The Concourse" and decided to explore that. He had nothing else to do.

 

He was amazed all over again to discover that The Concourse was an underground tunnel, lined with shops and restaurants and banks, that seemed to encompass the whole downtown area. It was like a whole separate downtown underground. He supposed the shops and restaurants catered to the office workers above ground, who must find it easier in inclement weather to come down here than to walk the streets in search of lunch or a bank.

 

Most of the businesses were closed or closing and he realized that they probably suited their hours to the offices above. Now that those were closed, they probably wouldn't have any customers.

 

There were many ways to return to ground level from The Concourse, but Starsky continued to walk, fascinated, and glad to have something to occupy his mind for a while.

 

"Hey, fella," a voice behind him said, and Starsky turned. Oops. A cop.

 

He stopped and waited for the officer wearing cowboy boots to catch up. "Yes, sir?"

 

"What y'all doin' down here?" the officer asked. "Everythin's closin' down."

 

The cardinal rule of working undercover was, don't lie unless you have to. Makes it easier to keep your story straight. So Starsky gave a grin and a shrug and said, "I'm a tourist. From California. I never saw anything like this before."

 

The cop relaxed. "Yeah, it's somethin', ain't it. Why don't ya come back tomorrow when the stores're open and visit again? Ain't much fun right now."

 

"I will," Starsky said. "Except I don't know how to get out."

 

The cop grinned. "Easy to think you got turned around, but there's only one way you can go. If you go down yonder," he pointed back the way Starsky had come, "you'll pop right out at the Myriad. That where you parked?"

 

"The Myriad?"

 

"The convention center."

 

"Oh, yeah," Starsky said. "Yeah. That's where I came in." He gave the cop a friendly wave and went back the way he'd come. No sense in drawing attention to himself.

 

Once he emerged into daylight again, he was right back where he started. Didn't know his way around, didn't know where to go. From the sidewalk outside the Myriad, he could see a sign pointing to Interstate 40. It was bumper-to-bumper traffic. Rush hour. No sense in trying to hitch a ride in that mess. Nobody seemed to do much walking here, either. But he had no choice, so he picked a direction at random and started walking. Within a few blocks, he came to a soup kitchen. There was a line on the sidewalk. The smell of meat loaf floated out through the open door, and Starsky figured he might as well join the line. He slipped in behind a wino who reeked of cheap liquor and unwashed clothes and flesh.

 

~*~*~*~

 

The credit card company, at Hutch's insistence, had sent a copy of the credit slip used in El Paso. As soon as Hutch laid eyes on it, he knew Starsky hadn't signed it. It said "David Starsky," but the handwriting bore no resemblance to Starsky's backhanded scrawl.

 

A few days later, the card was used again.

 

"Jewelry store," Hill said, reporting to Hutch. "They confiscated the card and the clerk gave us a description of the guy who used it, but they couldn't catch him. He ran off."

 

"Do the El Paso police have a description?"

 

Hill nodded. "Yeah. It's kinda vague, though. But they're going through their files."

 

Hutch had gotten over the Dengue Fever, but his leg still wouldn't bear weight well enough to have a walking cast, the doctor had said. And neither the doctor nor Dobey would hear of him traveling until then.

 

But every day that passed put the chances of picking up Starsky's trail more out of reach.

 

When he was alone to think again, Hutch made his decision. He was leaving the hospital in the morning with or without the doctor's or Dobey's permission. Hutch didn't care if he had a walking cast, if he didn't, he'd use crutches. He reached for the phone.

 

"The Pits, what's happenin'?" Huggy answered. Hutch knew he could get Huggy to help him despite any initial protest he might make.

 

"It's Hutch."

 

"What's up, my blond friend?"

 

Hutch took a deep breath. "I need you to do something for me. Call your travel agent friend and get me a flight to El Paso for tomorrow morning."

 

Huggy interrupted, "Hutch, listen...."

 

"No, Huggy. I'm done sitting here. I'm going tomorrow whether they release me or not. Some thug was out there using Starsky's credit card. He could be hurt, Hug. I have to find him and I really need your help." Hutch prayed Huggy would soften. He could do it without him, but his resourceful friend would make everything easier.

 

Huggy was silent for a moment. When Hutch heard him sigh into the phone, he knew he had won. "All right, Blondie. Talk to the doc and Dobey first, though. I'll make the call."

 

"Thanks, Hug. Get me a rental car, too, okay?"

 

"Yeah. Don't forget, drop a dime on Dobey." Huggy hung up the phone.

 

Hutch decided to wait until after he talked to the doctor to call the captain. He didn't have to wait long. When the doctor came in, Hutch started the conversation by asking when he could go home no sense arguing if it wasn't necessary.

 

"I'd like you here another two days." Hutch was disappointed at the reply.

 

"Sorry, Doc. I'm leaving in the morning." His tone was definite.

 

"I advise against that. I don't want you bearing any weight on that leg for another week and your shoulder injury will likely prevent you from effectively using crutches."

 

Hutch asked, "What about those crutches with the arm braces on them?"

 

"You might be able to use forearm crutches. Still, your fever has only been gone for a day and I don't like...."

 

Hutch cut him off before he could lay out the entirety of his objections.

 

"Save it, Doc. I'm going. I'm sorry, but I have to go. What would you say to switching this cast for a walking one as long as I promise to use the crutches and stay off it for another week?" Hutch smiled at him with his most sincere look.

 

The doctor could read the determination on his patient's face even through the sincere smile. "Listen to me a minute. You need to rest. Your captain explained the situation to me. You won't do Detective Starsky any good if you collapse on the road somewhere suffering from a relapse. I'm only going to help you if you can show me you are able to navigate on those crutches and you promise to rest every day."

 

Hutch nodded. Then as the doctor sat making notes in Hutch's chart, softly clucking and shaking his head, Hutch asked him a question he had hoped he would never ask.

 

"Doc, did you treat Starsky?"

 

The doctor put his pen down and peered at Hutch over his bifocals. "Yes, I did. Well, I was one of his physicians." He knew this conversation would do nothing to ease his patient's mind, nor would it give him any peace.

 

"Level with me. How bad was it?" Hutch looked hopeful that the doctor would answer.

 

For a moment, the doctor considered hiding behind the shield of doctor patient confidentiality. One look into his patient's pleading eyes squelched that idea.

 

"You really want it straight?"

 

"Always." Hutch didn't like the probable meaning behind that question.

 

"It was bad. He bled out more than half of his blood volume. We almost lost him a few times, but he's a fighter. Fortunately, his left wrist was not cut as badly. The right was more serious. His brachial artery was severed. If both wrists had been cut that badly, he would have died before we ever saw him." He paused a moment to let that soak in, concerned by the lack of color in Hutch's face. "Are you all right?"

 

"Yeah. How many stitches?"

 

"Why do you need to know that? I can see even telling you what I have so far is upsetting you."

 

"How many!?" Hutch raised his voice louder than he intended. When he was determined to find out something, nothing could dissuade him. His friends had successfully kept the full extent of Starsky's injuries from him and he needed to know.

 

"I don't remember exactly, but I think it was around eighty." The doctor braced himself for the explosion.

 

"Eighty! Oh, God. Could he even use his hands?" He knew that was serious and his concern was increasing.

 

"He was doing fairly well with his left when he checked out of the hospital. We kept him a little over a week. The right wrist had extensive nerve and tendon damage. I recall there being concern he would never regain feeling in it, but he had some returning by the time he left." The doctor prayed that small ray of hope would help Hutch.

 

Hutch imagined all kinds of dangers for his best friend. He was even more determined to get out of the hospital and look for him. Starsky was wandering God knew where hurt, alone, depressed, blaming himself, possibly bordering on suicidal, and probably unable to defend himself.

 

"Doc, it's been a few weeks. Do you think he could defend himself in a fight with his hands in that shape?"

 

This might be the hardest thing for the blond man to hear. "I'm sorry. Not a chance. Not for weeks to come, if ever." He patted Hutch on the leg and said, "Let's see what we can do to get you out of here so you can go find him."

 

Hutch's mouth was dry and his mind was racing. "Th-thanks, Doc." He was sorry he had to wait until morning. His partner was a sitting duck and Hutch needed to find him before he got hurt, if it wasn't already too late.

 

~*~*~*~

 

Starsky sat at a long, lunchroom style table attempting to eat what could possibly be stew and a roll. The meat loaf had looked too scary to try, but this mushy, pasty, grayish mess held no appeal, either. He knew he should eat something, but just didn't have any appetite and the meal before him was doing nothing to improve it.

 

The soup kitchen's manager was watching Starsky from the end of the line of food servers. He'd noticed the dark-haired man when he came through the line. Starsky looked like a ghost. The pale face with brilliant blue eyes set deep in dark circles had a strange sadness painted on it. Starsky was a lot younger than most of the men in the room and his eyes were clear. That telltale look that Don Carlton had come to recognize in the mentally ill was absent. He noticed the man push his plate of food away, quickly followed by the man next to him taking it. The curly-haired man put his arms on the table and put his head down on them. Don excused himself from the serving line and crossed the room to talk to the ghost.

 

"Evenin'." He sat down on the bench next to Starsky, facing away from him. The man made no response.

 

"Name's Don. Haven't seen you around here."

 

Starsky picked up his head and said, "I'm just passing through." He acted like he was going to stand up to go and Don put a hand on his forearm. The man flinched when his hand touched the hard brace under his jacket sleeve.

 

Don hated it sometimes that he cared about the lost souls that flitted through his soup kitchen, but he couldn't help it. Some of them just cried out to him like the man sitting next to him. "Take it easy, buddy. What's the hurry?"

 

"Don't call me that." Starsky's eyes narrowed and looked cold.

 

"Sorry. What's your name, then?"

 

"David. Thanks for the dinner, now I'm out of here."

 

"Wait, you didn't even eat any."

 

"What are you, my mother? I said thanks, now get out of my way." Starsky was stuck between Don and the smelly vagrant sitting on the other side eating his untouched stew.

 

Don stood up slowly. "We have room for you to spend the night if you want. Didn't mean to offend you. You just looked like you needed somebody to talk to, that's all."

 

Starsky picked up his knapsack and left. He was in no mood to talk to anyone. All he wanted was to be alone. He stepped out onto the sidewalk and started off down the street. Starsky laughed to himself at the thought that not knowing where he was going meant total freedom. A line from an old song floated through his mind: "Freedom's just another word for nothin' left to lose." Anywhere he went was fine as long as it took him far away from Bay City and the pain he felt over letting his friends die.

 

Walking down Western Street, Starsky didn't notice what a bad neighborhood it was. Dive bars, adult bookstores, and streetwalkers were everywhere. A few of the ladies of the evening tried to come on to him, but he walked on, oblivious. When he got near 10th, he heard the loud sound of a honky tonk band coming from an establishment with a sign that read "Blue Diamond." Although he had never understood Hutch's love of country music and its near relatives, he thought maybe listening to a little of it would help him feel closer to his friend. A beer or four might help deaden the pain for just one night, too.

 

He crossed the street and walked into the sleazy, run down bar. The smoky room was dim and the band was still playing. He walked up to the bar and sat down, ordering a beer. Looking around the room, he noticed that most of the people were just as run down as the bar. He looked at himself in the mirror behind the bar and chuckled at the thought that he fit right in at the Blue Diamond.

 

Half way through the beer, his ears perked up at the sounds of what was probably a drunken man trying to pick up on an unwilling woman. He looked up at the forty-something redhead who was trying to fend off a man twice as big as Starsky. He didn't care, that just wasn't right. All of the other bar patrons were discreetly ignoring the problem.

 

He stood and walked closer to the man who looked like he belonged under a bridge as its resident troll. Attempting to put himself between the woman and the mostly toothless giant, he put a hand on the man's chest and said, "The lady said to leave her alone, now blow."

 

The man was wearing a black t-shirt that read "White is Right." He glared at Starsky, turning his attention away from the redhead who was making a hasty exit.

 

"What's it to you, Curly?" he asked, standing up to his full height, towering over the much shorter Starsky.

 

"Stuff it." Starsky knew that would make the man angrier, but he didn't care. Subconsciously, he had given up caring if anyone hurt him.

 

Troll Man threw a punch at Starsky and he successfully blocked it with his left arm, but doing so cost him a wave of pain and nausea. He realized there was no way he was going to be able to make a fist and fight this man. Wishing he were wearing his dad's gun instead of carrying it in his knapsack, he did his best to hold off the larger man's attack. A few minutes into the altercation, the Blue Diamond's bouncer broke up the fight and tossed Starsky into the alley behind the bar, throwing his knapsack on top of him as he slammed the back door. The bouncer didn't dare tangle with Troll Man. He even dwarfed the bouncer.

 

Starsky lay in the alley for a few minutes trying to catch his breath. He thought to himself it was amazing he had been beaten up twice in just a few days. If he kept this up, maybe someone would finally kill him. The thought was not unpleasant.

 

He pulled his knapsack over and dug inside for one of his pictures of Hutch. The one he found showed him with his best friend sitting near a bonfire on the beach near Hutch's place. Terry had taken the photo of the two best friends teasing each other about something Starsky couldn't even remember. Hutch had on his black and white jacket and Starsky was glad he had that to cling to now. A single tear slid down his face and he said, "I sure miss you, buddy. I'm sorry I let you down."

 

Even if he was depressed, Starsky refused to spend a night sleeping in a dirty alley. He put the photo back, stumbled to his feet and walked back toward the soup kitchen. Don had said he could sleep there. Maybe that wasn't such a bad idea.

 

When Starsky appeared in the doorway of the shelter, Don saw him immediately. The ghost named David was now bloody, bruised, and leaning on the doorframe for support. He quickly crossed the room and put an arm around Starsky's waist. The man tried to pull away from him, but he was firm this time.

 

"David, let me help you. Come on, you can lie down in here."

 

Don helped him into another room and sat him down on a cot. Starsky looked up at him and said, "Thanks. I don't mean to be any trouble."

 

"David, have you been in a fight? You need medical attention." Don was concerned about the beating the man had obviously taken in the time since he left the shelter.

 

"NO! No doctors. Just let me sleep."

 

"Where did this happen? Were you robbed?"

 

Starsky shook his head. "Nah. Place called the Blue Diamond."

 

"That's a dangerous place. You could have been killed tangling with any of that crowd." Don had been in the Blue Diamond. He shuddered at the thought of this obviously hurting man wandering in there.

 

"Too bad I wasn't." That said, Starsky keeled over on the cot and fell asleep.

 

Starsky was deeply asleep. Don didn't like the idea of not having someone look at the beaten man, but he wasn't worried about a head injury. He had seemed coherent enough. He picked Starsky's feet up onto the cot and covered him with a blanket. He went through Starsky's pockets and knapsack looking for identification, but didn't find any. He did find a picture of Starsky with a blond man wearing the same jacket Starsky had on that night. He put the picture back and placed the knapsack on the cot next to the sleeping man and he draped an arm over it. That should keep it pretty safe. The room was quiet since the weather wasn't really bad. Don decided to keep an eye on Starsky through the night. The man obviously had enough problems without being robbed.

 

~*~*~*~

 

Hutch got off the plane in El Paso and saw the uniformed officer waiting for him. He hobbled over to the man. "I'm Hutchinson."

 

"Welcome to El Paso, Sergeant," the young man said. "I'm Joe Diggs. My captain asked me to take you to wherever you're staying and then bring you to the station. We have a suspect in custody."

 

"The guy who stole my partner's credit card?"

 

"Yes, sir," the officer said.

 

"What are we waiting for? Let's go to the station."

 

"What about your baggage, Sergeant?"

 

"It's 'Hutch,' please," Hutch said.

 

Diggs looked doubtful about calling him "Hutch," but carried his bag for him so he wouldn't have to struggle with it and the crutches, too. He escorted Hutch out to the squad car and drove him to the station. After he'd introduced Hutch to his captain and they'd exchanged a couple of pleasantries, the captain Hanks was his name said, "I suppose you'd like to interrogate our suspect."

 

"Yes, I would," Hutch said.

 

Diggs fetched the suspect from lockup and got him installed in an interrogation room and stood by as guard while the captain and Hutch sat down across from him.

 

The suspect wasn't much more than a kid, maybe 19 or 20 at most, and he was horribly nervous.

 

"This is Sergeant Hutchinson," Captain Hanks said to the young man, without mentioning that Hutch was from Bay City, California. "The credit card belongs to his partner."

 

The kid's eyes turned to Hutch and immediately fell. "You you can't prove I stole it, man," he said, his voice shaking.

 

"I'm afraid we can prove you were the one using it," Hanks said. "Security camera, Bobby. You used it and we got it on film. Doesn't matter much who stole it at that point. You were usin' it, and it ain't yours."

 

Bobby folded his hands and kept his eyes down.

 

Hutch reached out and snagged a handful of the kid's shirt, making Bobby look at him. "My partner's missing," he said in that level, threatening voice that suspects in Bay City knew well. "You had his credit card, scum. I wanna know how you got it."

 

Diggs' eyebrows rose, but Hanks merely sat back in his chair and crossed his legs. He'd worked in Dallas for several years, so he was familiar with big-city police procedure, and he'd personally received a phone call from Dobey telling him he could trust Hutch.

 

Bobby was trembling and sweating. "Man, I didn't do nothin' to him!"

 

"Where did you get that credit card?" Hutch asked, separating each word. His eyes bore into Bobby's.

 

"Okay, okay, man, look, we didn't hurt him. Honest. Me and a buddy found him at the bus station and we rolled him and took his wallet," Bobby spat out, terrified. "We didn't take nothin' else. A preacher or priest or somethin' came in and chased us off before we got anything else."

 

"What bus station?"

 

"The one downtown!"

 

"When?"

 

"A week or so ago," Bobby said.

 

"What'd he look like? The man you took the wallet from?"

 

"Curly hair, few days' worth o' beard, jeans, some kind of high school jacket," Bobby said, afraid to look at Hutch and afraid to look away.

 

Hanks shifted in his chair. "Was the priest Father Dolan, Bobby?"

 

Bobby glanced at Hanks. "I dunno, honest."

 

"Father Dolan," Hanks said to Hutch, "often hangs around the bus station looking for transients who need a hot meal and a shower. He's sort of our resident Good Samaritan."

 

"Trustworthy?" Hutch asked.

 

"Totally. Good man, actually. Fills 'em up with a meal, gives 'em a clean place to sleep, sometimes tries to find 'em a job or hooks 'em up with the folks at the mission. I'll give him a call, ask him if he remembers your friend." Hanks left the room.

 

Hutch turned back to Bobby. "What did you do with Starsky's wallet?"

 

"Just threw it down," Bobby said. "After we took the credit card out."

 

Hanks came back several minutes later. "I think it was your friend," he said to Hutch. "Dolan remembers rescuing a man who was getting robbed at the bus station and he said he had curly hair and a varsity jacket."

 

"Take me to him," Hutch said, rising and forgetting all about Bobby.

 

"Put him back in lockup," Hanks said to Diggs, indicating Bobby, "then take the sergeant over to St. Isidore's."

 

"Yes, sir," Diggs said.

 

St. Isidore's was in a rundown neighborhood whose better days had been many years ago. But it was a warm little church, with old-fashioned stained glass windows and several statues of saints and the Holy Family, Gothic architecture, and the slight scent of incense hanging in the air.

 

Father Dolan greeted them with a smile at the rectory door, next door to the church. "Hi, Joe," he said to Diggs. "How's your mama?"

 

"She's doing a lot better, Father," Diggs said. "She hopes she can come back to church on Sunday."

 

"Good, good. I'll drop by and see her tomorrow," Dolan said. "And you must be Sergeant Hutchinson."

 

Hutch nodded.

 

"Come in, boys. I have coffee on." Dolan led the way to the rectory's small but spotlessly clean kitchen and gave them each a mug of coffee. Taking a third one for himself, he sat down at the table. "What can I help you with, Sergeant?"

 

"I think the man you picked up at the bus station last week was my partner," Hutch said. He pulled a photo out of his shirt pocket and slid it across the table to Dolan. "Is that him?"

 

Dolan picked the photo up and studied it. "Yes, that's David, all right. Of course, he didn't look that good when I entertained him. I fear he hasn't been taking care of himself."

 

"How bad was it?" Hutch asked fearfully.

 

"Oh, he's lost some weight and he looked like he hadn't slept for days," Dolan said, shaking his head. "He needed a shave, too. And he's carrying a great deal of pain in his heart." Dolan frowned suddenly and looked at Hutch more closely. "You're his partner?"

 

Hutch nodded.

 

"Then perhaps you know what's troubling him so. He told me a friend had been killed and the same people had tried to kill him. He's wearing a brace on his right hand and has quite a nasty scar on his left wrist."

 

"I'm that friend," Hutch said, his voice catching a little. "He doesn't know I'm not dead, Father. It's a long story "

 

Dolan nodded. "He blames himself."

 

Hutch nodded again. "I know. I would, too, in his position."

 

"Can you tell me anything? If you can't, I understand."

 

Hutch glanced at Diggs, who'd been listening in silence. "A little, I guess. We were working on a drug case and one of them came after me. Starsky just got in the way. They kidnapped me and they cut his wrists and left him for dead. Then they sent photos back to my captain that made it look like I was dead and " He stopped. "I guess Starsky believed them."

 

"Starsky?" Dolan asked, eyebrows raised. "He said his name was David Banner."

 

"Banner?" Hutch said quizzically.

 

"A false name, obviously," Dolan said. "In fact, I'm sure he didn't expect me to recognize it, but that's The Incredible Hulk's alter ego." He smiled gently. "Probably didn't think a man of the cloth reads comic books. But Foxe's Book of Martyrs does pall after a while, and I read other things."

 

"Did he know you were onto him?"

 

Dolan shook his head. "A man in my line of work doesn't do much good if he's too curious, Officer. If he had wanted to talk, he would have. I tried to encourage him to talk to me, but he didn't want to. He's too deep into his pain right now. So I did what I could do. I fed him and gave him a place to sleep, and I prayed for him. In fact, I am still praying for him."

 

"Me, too," Hutch said with a sigh. "I just hope it does some good."

 

"He has a troubled soul," Dolan said. "Guilt is a heavy burden to carry, and David is carrying much more than his share, my friend. Blaming oneself for the death of another is a pain like no other. I take it you're very close."

 

Hutch nodded. "He's my best friend."

 

"I thought so," Dolan said. "May I speak plainly, Sergeant?"

 

"Please do," Hutch said.

 

"I have been in the business of serving the Lord for 30 years," Dolan said. "I have seen more troubled souls in those years than you will ever see, young man, God willing. I have seen men and women who are bent on destroying themselves and I have seen many of them succeed. Your friend David is punishing himself, Sergeant."

 

Hutch waited, his heart beating so hard he could feel it thumping.

 

"There are many ways to kill oneself," Dolan went on. "David has set his feet on that road, but he cannot bring himself to do it outright. Instead, he is slowly dying, from the inside out."

 

Hutch swallowed hard.

 

"Find him, young man. Whatever it takes. I could see that there is a fine, brave man under all that pain, and he must be saved."

 

~*~*~*~

 

Starsky woke early and set out to leave town. He headed back for the Myriad because it had been so near the highway, but at this hour on a Saturday, I-40 was nearly deserted. Starsky started walking anyway, figuring sooner or later a friendly trucker or another motorist would come by and give him a ride.

 

He trudged along, eyes down, not even bothering to stick out his thumb. So he was startled when a car pulled up on the shoulder in front of him, and a blonde girl stuck her head out the window. "Need a ride, mister?"

 

"Yeah, thanks," Starsky said, speeding up to a trot. The car was a rusty old LTD and reminded him of Hutch's, but he squashed that thought and smiled at the two girls in the front seat. "I appreciate this, ladies."

 

They giggled both were quite young and the blonde said, "That's okay. You look tired."

 

"Where're ya goin'?" the driver asked, also blonde, but obviously bleached. Her roots needed a touch-up. Starsky was in no mood to be critical, however.

 

"Anywhere. I'm just trying to get outta town," he said.

 

"We're goin' to Tinker," offered the blonde.

 

"Tinker?"

 

"The Air Force base," she said.

 

Starsky shrugged. "That'll do."

 

The girls chattered to each other and addressed the occasional remark to Starsky, but he mostly just looked out the window and let their talking wash over him. He didn't care where he went, as long as he kept moving.

 

As they approached a cloverleaf where another highway crossed I-40, a semi careened onto the road in front of them, out of control, and turned over on its side, sliding into a pickup and sending the pickup flying onto the median. The driver screamed and slammed on the brakes, trying to avoid the semi sliding down the highway on its side, but she couldn't get stopped in time. Her quick reflexes made the impact less serious, but only marginally so. The crash sent both girls into the dash and Starsky hit his head so hard he saw stars. And then he lost consciousness.

 

When he came to, there were seven or eight other vehicles crashed into the mess with them, glass all over the highway, and blood was trickling down his face from a nasty cut on the side of his head. His head ached and his whole body felt as if he'd been in a prizefight and lost. But he shook it off and checked on the two girls. The driver was dead; he could see that at a glance. The blonde girl in the passenger seat was unconscious, badly hurt, but still alive. Starsky had to roll down the window and climb out of the mangled car, but once he was out, he discovered he wasn't badly hurt himself. He looked wildly around for help.

 

The truck had to have a CB. They all did. He just hoped it still worked. He ran toward it and climbed in through the passenger window, ignoring the body of the driver that was crumpled against the other door.

 

The CB worked, barely. "Mayday! Mayday!" Starsky said frantically. "Bad wreck on I-40 at the junction of " he glanced toward the other highway and couldn't read the sign telling its number. But he could see the mile marker. "At mile marker 129!"

 

"I read ya," a voice drawled after he'd transmitted the message a second time. "Easy, pal. I'm callin' for help."

 

"10-4," Starsky said gratefully. "Massive injuries, at least nine or ten vehicles involved."

 

"Roger," the voice answered.

 

Starsky climbed out of the truck and started checking other vehicles for survivors. In a short time, he heard sirens. But before they got there, he smelled smoke and realized that a station wagon, which had rolled into the eastern ditch, was on fire. He ran. And as he got closer, he heard a child's scream.

 

The station wagon was in worse shape than the LTD he'd been riding in. The gas line had apparently been severed in the impact, and the friction as the car slid down the highway had set it on fire. Smoke was rolling from the car and, fearing it would explode, Starsky raced to check for survivors. A small child, about four years old, was trapped in the backseat, tangled in the seat belt from which she'd tried to escape. Two adults in the front were dead. Starsky fought with the door, but it wouldn't open. The little girl was hysterical, big enough to be afraid of the fire, but too small to help free herself.

 

Starsky coughed and tried not to breathe any more smoke than necessary. Police, fire engines, and ambulances started to arrive, but he didn't hear or see them, so intent was he on getting that child out of the burning car. He looked around, frantic to find something to use to break the window. Spotting a long piece of metal that had snapped off of the car, he quickly grabbed it and rushed back to the car window. Finally, he yelled, "Cover your face, sweetheart!" The child cowered, going into a fetal position, and Starsky drew back the piece of metal and smashed the window. Somehow, he got the child out and ran with her, away from the car. The combination of adrenaline, determination, and damage from his previous injuries caused him not to notice that the metal was hot from the fire on the pavement and he now had burns in the palms of both hands.

 

"Mommy! Daddy!" she screamed. "Don't forget Mommy and Daddy!"

 

"The firemen'll get them, sweetheart," Starsky said hoarsely. "Hush, it's okay."

 

Starsky carried the child back to where the rescue vehicles were. When a paramedic attempted to take her from him she screamed and clung to him as if he were her only lifeline. By this time, he was coughing and his hands had started to hurt. Still, he sat with her and refused to let the paramedic force her from him.

 

When his cough calmed a little he said, "Just let me hold her while you look her over, huh? I think she's more scared than hurt. Get the firemen over to that LTD. Driver's dead and the passenger's hurt bad."

 

The paramedic used his flashlight to check the child's pupils. He also took her vital signs while she clung to Starsky.

 

"You her father?" he finally asked.

 

Starsky shook his head. "I pulled her out of the station wagon in that ditch." He pointed in the direction of the flaming wreckage. The paramedic took in the fact that the child's parents were surely dead and he also noticed the angry burn on Starsky's palm.

 

Giving Starsky a concerned look, he said, "I'll be right back." Then he trotted off to the paramedic unit.

 

"Sweetheart?" Starsky said gently. He rocked the little girl and petted her hair. "What's your name?"

 

The child sniffled but didn't answer.

 

"Come on now. I need to know your name. I'll tell you mine."

 

She looked up at him, tears streaming down her soot covered cheeks. "You first."

 

He smiled. "Okay, sweetheart. Mine's Dave. Now you." Starsky had always been good with children.

 

"Rachel," she said quietly.

 

"Good job, Rachel. You know, that's my mom's name, too? Do you know your last name?"

 

She nodded and whispered, "Klein."

 

The paramedic had returned with his partner, a stretcher, an IV bag, and some other items including oxygen for both the child and Starsky. He had radioed ahead to a doctor for permission to give the child something to calm her down since she didn't seem to have a head injury. While Starsky distracted Rachel, the paramedic inserted the IV line and empted a sedative into it. Starsky was relieved when the little girl slowly went limp in his arms and he was able to hand her to the paramedics.

 

When the man's partner attempted to start oxygen on Starsky he waved him off and growled, "I'm all right. Leave me alone."

 

"Look, you're covered with soot, your head is bleeding, you're coughing, and you have burned hands. At least let me look at you and give you some oxygen for a few minutes."

 

Starsky's chest really did hurt. He decided to play along, but on his terms. "All right, but I'm not going to any hospital. I'm fine."

 

"Sure you are." The paramedic started the oxygen and took a surreptitious look at Starsky. Despite his long sleeves, the man had noticed the long scar on Starsky's wrist and the brace on the other hand. The dark-haired man looked like he hadn't eaten in weeks, or slept much either. He was thin, pale, and in obvious pain from the burned palms. While they were treating him and bundling Rachel off into the unit, Starsky failed to notice the approaching news reporter.

 

News writers at one of the local channels had heard about the crash on their newsroom scanners. A crew was already out in the field filming another story from the station helicopter and it was only a few minutes before they were able to land the chopper next to the sprawling wreck site.

 

The reporter nosed around the witnesses and rescue personnel with his cameraman filming all the while. A shot of the flaming station wagon and some careful questions about its occupants brought the reporter and his entourage over to where Starsky sat.

 

"Excuse me, sir, Brad Derek, Eye Witness News. Is it true that you are the man who pulled a child out of that burning station wagon?" The man stuck a microphone under Starsky's nose. He looked up at the camera, panic in his eyes.

 

As he became agitated, Starsky's cough became a hack. He was able to bite out, "Get away from me." The cameraman pulled back the shot to show Starsky sitting on the bumper of a fire truck. A witness had told them that Starsky was hurt, his hands burned. The cameraman focused in on Starsky's hands, catching the brace on the one hand, and the other holding his chest while he hacked.

 

"What's your name? What does it feel like to be a hero?" The unfortunate reporter was about to get a surprise.

 

Starsky got his coughing more under control and he dropped the oxygen mask to the ground. He stood up suddenly, swaying a little. The reporter put a hand out to steady him. Starsky grabbed him by the lapels of his coat as hard as his weakened grip would allow and yelled in his face, "I ain't nobody's hero. You got that? Now get away from me!" He shoved the man backward and put his left hand up to shield his face from the camera. That only resulted in the camera getting a good shot at both the burn on his hand and the scar on his wrist. He shoved his way past the stunned cameraman and stalked over to the LTD. The girls had already been removed from it. He reached into the back and retrieved his knapsack, and then he turned and got away from the scene. He walked down the road as fast as he could go.

 

~*~*~*~

 

After his disheartening talk with Father Dolan, Hutch went to the bus station to see if Starsky had taken a bus anywhere. He and Diggs found out that Starsky had purchased a ticket for Lubbock, and then cashed it in without buying a ticket for any other destination.

 

"That means he's hitchhiking," Hutch said rubbing the bridge of his nose. "That's just great."

 

Diggs could see the blond was exhausted. "Uh, Hutch, why don't you let me take you to the hotel? You look beat."

 

Hutch looked up at him, intent on arguing the point, but he decided maybe it was the best thing to do. He really was so tired he could barely stand and he didn't want to hit the road that tired.

 

"Yeah. Will you pick me up tomorrow morning at a little before eight? I want to be there when the rental car agency opens so I can get on the road."

 

"Sure thing." Diggs led the way back to the car and helped Hutch get inside. A few minutes later they pulled into the La Siesta Motor Lodge where Diggs had gotten Hutch a room earlier in the day. The hotel was small and Spartan, but clean and within walking distance of a coffee shop. Diggs helped him get into the room.

 

"You sure you're gonna be all right tonight?" Diggs felt a little guilty leaving Hutch alone, on crutches, sick with worry, and in a strange town. He had tried unsuccessfully to talk Hutch into staying at his place.

 

"I'm fine. Just gonna check in with my captain and hit the sack. You were right, I'm beat. Thanks." He smiled at Diggs, grateful for his help.

 

"You're welcome. I'll see you in the morning."

 

"Good night." Hutch closed the door and looked around the small room. He sat down on the bed and called Dobey.

 

"Dobey." He sounded harried. Hutch smiled, what should be different about today?

 

"Hey, it's Hutch," he said.

 

Dobey sounded suddenly interested. "Anything?"

 

"A little. He was here. I interrogated the kid who got his credit card. Lying little creep said they didn't hurt him. He and another guy got to him in the bathroom at the bus station." Hutch was still angry about that. He knew the kid had to be lying. Starsky wouldn't just hand over his wallet to some two-bit punk without a struggle, no matter how upset he was.

 

Dobey could hear the strain in Hutch's voice. "What else?"

 

"Aw, Cap." Hutch closed his eyes and slumped back onto the bed with the phone. "He stayed the night with a local priest. Sort of a Good Samaritan who rescued him. Father Dolan said he looked bad. Said he wasn't eating and he hadn't slept. He's using an alias, David Banner. Will you let Huggy know?"

 

"Right away. How long ago did he leave El Paso?"

 

"Around a week, Cap. He's got a good head start on me again. Cap, he's hitchhiking."

 

Hutch's voice was tight. Dobey didn't like that either. Starsky was depressed and not thinking clearly. He might get in with someone who would hurt him.

 

"Cap, you hear anything on your end?"

 

"I just got off the phone with Huggy. He said 'nada'. Starsky hasn't contacted anyone and he hasn't been seen since he left here. The information you got today is all we have."

 

Hutch was frustrated. "I'm afraid something is gonna happen to him before I can find him. Father Dolan said...." Hutch had to stop, his voice breaking.

 

"What? Hutch?" Dobey was uncomfortable with the lengthy pause.

 

Hutch managed to say it. "He said Starsky was trying to kill himself slowly. Said he couldn't do it outright."

 

The conversation stopped while both men thought about what Father Dolan told Hutch. Dobey decided not to belabor the point. They both knew how serious the situation was. "What's next, Hutch?"

 

"Tomorrow morning I'm going to the rental car agency. I'm just going to hit the interstate and see what I can find until another lead surfaces. Even if they find the other kid who robbed Starsk, I've gotten everything there is to get here."

 

"You sound really tired. Are you resting? You know I only agreed to this under certain conditions." Dobey had reluctantly agreed to Hutch's plan on his promise to rest and take care of his leg. The doctor had threatened the blond detective with a permanent limp if he failed to follow instructions.

 

"Yeah, I'm resting. I've stayed off the leg. Don't worry about me, let's just concentrate on finding Starsky. I'll call you again tomorrow."

 

Hutch hung up the phone. He stared at the ceiling for a few minutes, realizing if he didn't get moving he was going to fall asleep right there. Hutch got back up on his crutches and left the room to go get some dinner at the coffee shop across the street. Half an hour later he returned with a bag of nondescript food and a soda stuffed into his jacket pockets. He snapped on the television and sat down on the floor close enough to reach the channel selector. When he found a station with news he stopped.

 

Eating his dinner and paying peripheral attention to the television, Hutch looked up when he heard a news story that had taken place earlier that day involving a serious traffic accident. He couldn't help thinking it must have been a slow news day.

 

The anchor was saying, "Earlier today, a nine car pileup on Interstate 40 just outside Oklahoma City kept traffic at a crawl for hours." The tape of the accident site started to roll.

 

Hutch whistled softly. "What a mess," he said aloud.

 

Suddenly, he became totally alert as the camera panned to a man sitting huddled on the bumper of a fire truck with an oxygen mask on his face.

 

"Excuse me, sir, Brad Derek, Eye Witness News. Is it true that you are the man who pulled a child out of that burning station wagon?"

 

"Get away from me." When the man dropped the oxygen mask to bark out that order, Hutch instantly recognized Starsky. His head was cut and his face was covered with a mixture of sweat, soot, and blood. The shot pulled back again and then focused on Starsky's hands. Hutch could see the brace and his own chest tightened as he watched his friend cough and hold his chest with his left hand.

 

The reporter was typically persistent. Hutch knew how well Starsky was going to respond. "What's your name? What does it feel like to be a hero?"

 

Hutch watched in horrified fascination as Starsky stood on wavering legs and grabbed the persistent man by the coat. Even Hutch was shocked by the vehemence in Starsky's voice. "I ain't nobody's hero. You got that? Now get away from me!" After he pushed the man, Starsky put his hand up and Hutch got a good look at the damage. He had a long, ugly scar on his wrist and what looked in that quick shot like at least a 2nd degree burn on his palm. The wounds looked terrible and Hutch felt tears coming to his eyes. The camera shot Starsky running away from the scene and then panned back to the reporter.

 

"This is Brad Derek, Eye Witness News."

 

The anchor was continuing, "The accident took the lives of six people, and injured fourteen. Some were treated and released, but eight people remain hospitalized tonight. Up next, weather with...." Hutch reached up and turned off the television. He was shaken and afraid for Starsky. He scooted back over to the phone and called Dobey, at home this time.

 

"Cap, it's Hutch again. I just saw Starsky on a news broadcast."

 

"WHAT? WHERE?" Dobey bellowed. Edith Dobey looked up from the kitchen table where she was helping Rosie with a homework project, hoping her husband's outburst signaled some news of Starsky.

 

"Outside Oklahoma City. Looks like he was involved at a major accident site."

 

"Do you think he was injured?"

 

"Yeah. He looked terrible. He had a cut on his head and a bad burn on one of his hands. He looked like he'd been in a fire. He looked thin. God, I saw the scar. Geez, Cap. I had no idea." Hutch could barely contain his concern.

 

"You going in the morning?"

 

"Hell no, I'm going now. Gonna go to the airport and get out there on the first thing I can catch. I'll call you from Oklahoma City."

 

Hutch hung up the phone and called for a taxi. While he waited, he called Diggs at home.

 

"Diggs, this is Hutchinson. I have a lead on Starsky and I'm moving on it tonight."

 

"You need me to come and get you?" Diggs sounded encouraged by the news.

 

"No, thanks. I just called a taxi. I'm headed for Oklahoma City. If you hear anything else, please call Captain Dobey and let him know. I'll be in touch."

 

"I will. Good luck, Hutch."

 

"Thanks for all your help, man. I wouldn't have made it this far without you and Captain Hanks." Hutch hung up and hobbled to the office to check out and wait for the cab. When it arrived Hutch climbed inside, lost in thoughts of the sheer luck of him seeing Starsky on that newscast. What if he hadn't turned on the television? What if he had been in the bathroom when the story aired? What if...? He wished his partner were with him. Hutch knew how much Starsky enjoyed the "what if" game.

 

~*~*~*~

 

The truck had a sticker that clearly said "no riders" but when the driver, leaning against the running board smoking a joint, saw Starsky wearily dozing under a tree at the rest stop, he didn't have the heart to leave him there.

 

"Hey, man."

 

Starsky pried open his eyes and blinked up at the man, about his own age and wearing a fatigue jacket.

 

"Which way you goin'?"

 

Starsky shrugged. "Don't matter."

 

"I'm takin' a load to St. Louis," the driver said. "Give ya a lift?"

 

Starsky was suspicious. He hadn't asked this man for a ride. "What makes you think I need a ride?"

 

The man grinned, offered the joint, which Starsky refused with a shake of his head, and said, "I been drivin' a truck ever since I got home from 'Nam. I know the signs. Been hitchin', but ain't had much luck, right?"

 

That was certainly the truth. Starsky had walked north on I-35 away from Oklahoma City after leaving the scene of the accident. He'd walked for miles, passing what he had cynically dubbed "Museum Row" a lot of tourist traps like the Cowboy Hall of Fame and an amusement park called "Frontier City" and no one had given him a ride. He'd lost track of the hours and the miles and when he'd seen a rest area, he was so exhausted that he'd stumbled this far and sunk down under this tree. He didn't know how long he'd slept, but it was full dark. "Yeah, that's about it."

 

"My name's Marvin," the man went on, "but most people call me Bud. I'd be glad to take ya as far as I'm goin'. Gonna storm soon. Ya don't wanna be out here in the open during an Oklahoma storm. Trust me."

 

Starsky glanced upward and noticed the increasing wind and the dropping temperature. Even though Hutch's jacket was warm, it wasn't going to be enough if it got much colder. "Sure. I could use a ride."

 

"Thought so." Bud pinched the fire off the joint, produced a cigarette package cellophane, and dropped the roach in. He stuffed it back in his pocket and offered a hand up, which Starsky accepted, snagging the strap of his knapsack on the way up. "Whatcha want me to call you?"

 

Starsky couldn't help grinning at the way Bud phrased that clearly he was used to meeting people who didn't want their real identities known. "David."

 

"Nice to meet ya." Bud led the way back to his rig. "Sandwiches in the sack there, and sodas in the cooler," he said as he put the truck in gear and started out of the rest area. "Help yourself."

 

Starsky did, hungry for the first time in days, but one sandwich and half a can of Coke was enough to fill him up. Bud chattered a little about the coming storm, made a couple of remarks about the traffic in Tulsa, and finally subsided. They rode in comfortable silence for a while.

 

"You say you were in 'Nam?" Starsky said after a while.

 

"Yeah." Bud shook his head. "Hated it, too. 'Spose everybody did. I was only 18 when they sent me over there, never been out of Shitty City before then. Scared me to death."

 

"Shitty City?"

 

Bud grinned over at him. "What natives call OKC. I actually grew up in Moore, but it's all the same thing. Moore, Edmond, The Village, Warr Acres, Bethany...."

 

"Where were you stationed in 'Nam?"

 

"Different places. I was in the Tet Offensive."

 

Starsky looked at him with a little more admiration. "Get hurt?"

 

"Took a shot in the leg. But a buddy stepped on a mine," Bud said. "I figured I was lucky."

 

"I was there, too," Starsky said. "In 'Nam, I mean. Changes a man."

 

"Sure does," Bud said. "See much action?"

 

"Too much."

 

"Yeah, I know that feelin'," Bud said.

 

The storm broke, but they drove out of it and even the part they did see convinced Starsky he wouldn't have wanted to be in the open during it. He'd never seen such wind and rain before. He said so to Bud.

 

"Ain't nothin' to slow it down," Bud said with another grin. "Too flat. Kansas sucks and Texas blows and that's why it's windy in Oklahoma."

 

Starsky laughed out loud, the first time he'd done so for a very long time. They drove through Tulsa in the quiet of the wee hours and by the time sunrise was approaching, they were nearing Joplin, Missouri.

 

"Hungry?" Bud asked. "See that truck stop comin' up? They got a restaurant there that serves the best omelette you ever had."

 

"Sounds good," Starsky said.

 

The restaurant was called The Iron Skillet, and Starsky was bemused by the "Americana" of it, as he would have said to Hutch once upon a time. It was also busy, so they sat at the counter, where a bubble-gum chewing waitress with bleached blonde hair and bright red lipstick called them both "hon" and served them, as Bud had promised, the best omelette Starsky had ever had, accompanied by hash browns with onions and melted cheese and a bottomless cup of coffee. The food came in miniature iron skillets instead of plates.

 

"What'd I tell ya?" Bud demanded, watching Starsky put his food away. He could see his companion hadn't been eating right and guessed that this was the first real meal he'd had for a while.

 

"You were right," Starsky said. "Best omelette I ever had."

 

"There's no place like truck stops for good breakfasts," Bud said. He lit a cigarette while Starsky finished eating and joked with the waitress, whom he seemed to know.

 

Starsky finished his meal and wiped his mouth with the paper napkin, and as he reached for his coffee cup the waitress saw the burn on the palm of his left hand.

 

"Oh, hon, that must hurt like the dickens," she said sympathetically. "Why don't you let me get the first aid kit for you?"

 

"Naw, it's nothin'," Starsky said, though it did hurt "like the dickens."

 

"Ain't no trouble," she said, turning to reach under the register for a small blue box. "I'm used to patchin' up the boys."

 

"Her sons," Bud said to Starsky. "She's got four."

 

"Little hellions they are, too," she said with a smile, producing antibiotic cream and a roll of gauze. She soon had him bandaged up and gave his hand a friendly pat when she finished. "What happened, hon?"

 

Starsky shrugged. "Picked up somethin' hot."

 

She smiled again. "I guess so!"

 

Starsky had been coughing intermittently ever since the wreck, but when he and Bud were back out on the road, it started to get so bad that he could hardly breathe in between bouts.

 

"Hey, you okay, man?" Bud asked, concerned, when this had gone on for about an hour.

 

"Yeah," Starsky gasped, taking another drink out of the lukewarm Coke.

 

"Were you in a fire or somethin'?"

 

"Yeah," Starsky said. It was all he had time to say before the spasms shook him again.

 

"Look, there's a hospital in the next town," Bud said. "I think I'd better take you there. Somethin's wrong."

 

Starsky shook his head, but couldn't speak.

 

"Come on, man. Let me take you to the hospital. You musta breathed in some smoke or somethin' in that fire."

 

It was no use trying to argue when he couldn't even talk. As they pulled into Springfield, Bud took the first exit and in a few minutes pulled the truck up outside a hospital. He came around to help Starsky out and up to the emergency room door. By now Starsky was coughing so hard he couldn't even squeeze out a word.

 

"His name's David," Bud said to the nurse on the desk. "He was in a fire and now he's coughing his ass off. I don't know nothin' else about him."

 

~*~*~*~

 

Hutch hobbled through the Oklahoma City airport, his bag awkwardly slung over his shoulder, trying to squeeze through the crowd on his crutches. Most people got out of his way, but it didn't make it much easier to get around. He did finally make it to the rental car desk and rented an automatic transmission Chevy. The attendant carried his bag for him and accompanied him to the car.

 

"Sure you can handle it, sir?" she asked.

 

"Yeah, thanks." Hutch tossed the bag into the back and eased himself into the driver's seat. He had already looked up the address of "Eye Witness News" and looked at a map. He drove straight to the TV station and asked for Brad Derek.

 

"He's out on assignment," the receptionist said. "Do you have an appointment?"

 

Hutch showed her his badge. "I'm looking for a missing person and I saw Derek interviewing him on your show last night."

 

Her eyes widened and she picked up the phone. "Just a minute, please." She called the news director and relayed Hutch's message, and in a few moments, a harried-looking man with a loose tie came out.

 

"Gary Churchill," he said to Hutch. "What's this about a missing person?"

 

Hutch explained as quickly as he could and showed Churchill the photograph of Starsky. "I saw your reporter interviewing this man at the scene of a highway accident on the news last night," he said. "I have to talk to that reporter."

 

"I know Brad didn't get his name," Churchill said, "but I can show you the tape. We didn't show all of it on the broadcast, of course. We edited it. But we still have the uncut version. Would that help?"

 

He led Hutch to the editing room and shuffled through tapes until he found the right one. Hutch watched as the camera panned over the scene of the wreckage the overturned truck, the cars smashed into it and each other, the glass and the blood and the smoke from the burning station wagon. The camera had caught just a few moments of Starsky running from the burning car with a little girl in his arms. "Wait. That's him."

 

The director froze the frame. "Your missing person?"

 

"My missing partner," Hutch said.

 

"Brad and Tom the cameraman saw him saving that child and tried to interview him, but he wouldn't cooperate," the news director said, a little tartly.

 

Hutch suppressed his reaction. In his experience, he'd found that reporters and TV news people thought first of the story, and second of the human feelings behind the story. He supposed they had to, like cops had to be able to shake off the pain and ugliness they saw every day, too. But it didn't make it any easier to take when you were the one whose pain they saw as "a story."

 

Churchill started the tape again, and Hutch watched the rest, including the portion where Starsky shook off the reporter and walked away. "Where was this?" he asked the news director.

 

"I-40 and I-35," Churchill said. "The police said the truck was trying to merge and lost control. They think the driver fell asleep at the wheel." He shook his head. "The man's dead or he'd be in a whole lot of trouble."

 

"Which one is that?" Hutch asked, indicating the figure of Starsky walking over the grassy expanse that separated the two highways and hiking up a hill to walk away on the second highway.

 

"That one's I-35. He's headed north."

 

"How do I get there?"

 

Damn, he could be anywhere by now, Hutch thought as he drove up I-35 from the interchange at I-40. This section of the highway was choked with tourist attractions but not much else. The amusement park on the west side of the highway was doing a brisk business by the look of the rides Hutch could see. But it was still a long, lonely stretch, and Hutch worried that Starsky had had to walk a long way. He stopped at every exit, hoping to see a place where a man could stop and rest, but there was nothing. By the time he reached a rest area, it was afternoon.

 

He parked the Chevy and got out to go to the restroom, finding it difficult to extricate himself and the crutches from the car without assistance. He was breathless by the time he reached the building, and spared a moment to feel sympathy for people who had to get around on crutches all their lives. It must be hell.

 

When he came out, he leaned against a tree for a moment to catch his breath before heading back to the car. And there at his feet, almost buried in the grass and loose leaves, he saw something white. It wasn't easy to reach down that far with the cast in his way, but he finally managed to snag the piece of paper and stand up. It was a list. In his own handwriting. A list of "things to do" which had been in the pocket of his varsity jacket the last time he'd worn it the day before Terrel had kidnapped him.

 

See lawyer

Get gas

Feed rhododendron plant

 

The words blurred in front of Hutch's eyes as he looked at them. There was only one way this list could have gotten here. It must have fallen out of the jacket pocket, the jacket Starsky was still wearing, and that meant that Starsky must have been here.

 

Thanks, Hutch prayed silently.

 

By the looks of the sidewalk and grass, it had rained hard here last night, but the note had been saved by being under the tree and half buried under leaves. It was damp and crumpled, but it was here. And Starsky had been here. And based on the time of the highway wreck the news crew had filmed, he had to have been here in the last 24 hours, maybe even less than that.

 

Hutch got back to the car as fast as his crutches would allow and sped north on I-35. He was close. He knew it.

 

~*~*~*~

 

Starsky spent a miserable day and night in the Springfield hospital, but was finally feeling better by the next morning. Bud had come in to see him after he was admitted and apologized for having to leave him there.

 

"I gotta be in St. Louis by tonight," Bud had said. "Wish I could hang around and take ya the rest of the way."

 

"No, man, you go on. Don't worry about it," Starsky'd said. "I appreciate all you've done."

 

Bud had patted his shoulder warmly and left with a wave.

 

But that left Starsky alone here, in a town that wasn't that big in the middle of a state he didn't really want to be in. Not that he wanted to be anywhere, if the truth was known. When morning came and the doctor said he could go "home," Starsky merely nodded and listened to the instructions the doctor gave him, meekly took the prescription the doctor handed him, and made his way to the window to pay for it all.

 

The total appalled him and was far more than he had in cash. And since the kids in El Paso had taken his credit card, he had a problem.

 

Then he remembered the accounts back in Bay City, the money Hutch had left for him that he hadn't wanted and had tried to give back to Hutch's parents. "I need to use a telephone," he said to the nurse. She waved him to a pay phone on the wall and Starsky called Hutch's attorney.

 

"This is David Starsky," he said, the words feeling strange on his tongue after having avoided his real name for well, he'd lost track of how long. "I need to arrange to have a cashier's check sent to Springfield Memorial Hospital in Springfield, Missouri to pay a hospital bill."

 

The attorney's receptionist took the information he gave her without asking any questions. That was a relief. He hung up, went back to the receptionist and explained.

 

Back in Bay City, the receptionist typed up the information and took it into the attorney for his signature. His eyes almost popped out of his head when he looked at it.

 

"Is he still on the phone?" he demanded, almost angrily.

 

"No, sir. He hung up."

 

"Every cop from here to Texas is looking for this guy!" he snapped at her. "He's been missing for weeks! Why didn't you find out where he was?"

 

She recoiled a little. "I didn't know...."

 

The attorney ignored her and picked up the phone. "Captain Dobey, please. It's urgent."

 

~*~*~*~

 

Hutch knew it was slowing him down, but he stopped at rest stops and restaurants along the interstate to show Starsky's photo to people and ask if anyone had seen him. By the time he reached Joplin, Missouri, he was exhausted. He hadn't slept for over 48 hours. He'd hardly eaten for longer than that. And though he thought he was on the right track, his guts were in knots worrying that he wasn't. There were a lot of small towns and other roads between Joplin and Oklahoma City. Starsky could have gone to Kansas. He could have gone east or west or dropped off the face of the planet for all Hutch knew.

 

God, buddy, why are you running? What if I never find you?

 

It was about the biggest truck stop Hutch had ever seen, and he thought it would probably take him hours to work his way through it showing the now dog-eared photograph to every employee. He had to try, though. He sank into a seat at the counter of the restaurant and wearily accepted the cup of coffee the waitress set in front of him.

 

"Need somethin' to eat, hon?"

 

"Yeah, why not," Hutch said. He pulled the photo out of his pocket. "I'm looking for somebody. Have you seen this guy?"

 

She took the photo and studied it. "Why, sure, hon. He was in here yesterday mornin', real early."

 

Hutch's exhaustion vanished in an instant. "Alone?"

 

"No, he was with Bud Reid, one of our regulars. Well, as regular as a place like this gets. Bud comes through about once a week or so on his run."

 

"A trucker?"

 

She nodded.

 

"How did he look? Where were they going?"

 

She studied him for a moment. "Why d'you wanna know?"

 

Hutch realized that a lot of people probably came through here who didn't want to be found and she was probably used to keeping quiet about it. He consciously forced himself to calm down and reached into another pocket for a different photograph, one he'd brought only for himself. In this one, Starsky and Hutch were together, arms around each other's shoulders, laughing. He looked at it longingly for a moment, then handed it to the waitress. "He's my friend. He's missing. I'm trying to find him."

 

She took the photo and examined it, then raised her eyes to look at Hutch. The expression in them was softer now. "Bud's run is usually Oklahoma City to St. Louis. Sometimes he goes to Chicago or Indianapolis. The quickest way is I-44 and I'm sure that's the way he uses. I've heard him say so. But by now, he's probably been to St. Louis and is on his way back, unless he had a layover somewhere."

 

"What about Starsky?" Hutch asked. "How did he look?"

 

She considered. "Tired. Sick. He was coughing a lot. Pale. He had a bad burn on his hand."

 

Hutch bit his lip. "How did he act?"

 

She shook her head. "I see a lotta heartache workin' here."

 

Hutch went to the pay phone and called Dobey.

 

"Hutch! It's about time you called in!"

 

Hutch winced at both the volume and the tone. It didn't sound like good news. "You got something?"

 

"Yeah. Starsky called your attorney two hours ago and asked for a cashier's check to be sent to a hospital in Springfield, Missouri," Dobey said. "At least, we assume it was Starsky. He talked to the receptionist, who didn't know we're looking for him. She's a temp, filling in for the regular girl."

 

"Dammit!" Hutch slammed his fist into the wall next to the phone. "Which hospital?"

 

"It's called Springfield Memorial," Dobey said. "They won't tell us why he's there or what he's being treated for. In fact, they won't even tell us if he's still there. We've got a call in to the Missouri State Police Hutch?"

 

The phone dangled from its cord where Hutch had left it when he heard the name of the hospital.

 

The waitress was coming out with a sandwich for Hutch when she saw him hobbling out the door as fast as he could on the crutches. She grabbed a paper bag and dashed out the door after him shoving the food into the bag. Catching up to him at the car she said, "Here, honey, take this sandwich at least."

 

Hutch was just struggling into the car when he saw her. "No time, but thanks."

 

"Wait a minute. You don't look in that much better shape than your buddy. Take it, okay?" She held the bag out for him. Hutch sighed, but he smiled up at her anyway as he reached for his wallet.

 

"Keep it. On the house. Find your friend, okay?" She felt terrible for both men. As the mother of four sons, she knew how the missing man's own mother must be worried.

 

"Thanks." Hutch closed the door to the car and she watched him pull out of the parking lot, saying a silent prayer that he would find his friend unharmed. He hadn't looked good at all when he was in the truck stop.

 

Hutch headed for Springfield, hoping the hospital would be visible from the Interstate when he got there. For once, he was in luck. He saw the sign for the hospital off the first Springfield exit. He pulled the car off the highway and headed for the Emergency Room parking lot.

 

The Emergency Room receptionist looked up at him when he spoke. She thought he must be checking himself in since he looked pretty rough, dark circles under his eyes, pale, and he was holding himself up on crutches.

 

"What's wrong with you?" she asked as she held out a form for him to fill out while she talked to him.

 

Hutch stared at the form and clipboard blankly. "Oh, I'm not here to check in. I'm looking for a patient."

 

"Oh." She retrieved the clipboard. "You family?"

 

"Yes." He didn't even hesitate. Starsky and Hutch were more family to each other than many people related by blood.

 

"Patient's name?" Hutch couldn't help thinking this woman was all business. He might have a hard time getting any information from her.

 

"David Starsky. Oh, he might have checked in as David Banner."

 

She looked at him with raised eyebrows. "Oh, a mystery man. Well, which is it?"

 

Hutch was getting annoyed. He was worried and he needed to know if Starsky was badly hurt. "Look, I already told you. Could be either, will you just look?"

 

"Keep your shirt on!" She started looking through the log and she found it. "Yep, David Banner. Checked in yesterday."

 

"Is he still here?" Hutch was afraid to hope.

 

"I can't tell from this, gimme a minute." She picked up the phone and called another department. Hutch could barely contain himself. Finally she hung up and said, "Nope. Checked out this morning."

 

"Damn!" He said, drawing the attentive stares of a few mothers waiting with kids in various stages of injury or illness.

 

"I need to talk to his doctor." He tried to calm down, breathing slowly to regain some balance. "Please, it's that important."

 

The woman behind the desk scrutinized him. Deciding he seemed sincere enough, she offered to find the doctor if the blond would please just take a seat. He reluctantly complied and waited an agonizing half an hour for the man to finish with his current patient and come out to talk to him. Every minute that ticked by was another minute Starsky was on the road alone and moving ever farther from him.

 

The doctor came out and sat next to Hutch. He had no trouble spotting the man the receptionist had described as tall, blond, handsome, on crutches, and looking decidedly freaked.

 

They shook hands. "I'm Doctor Bradford. Are you David Banner's family? You don't look like you are." He had no intention of giving out confidential information to anyone other than the man's next-of-kin.

 

"I know, Doc. We're best friends." He pulled out his identification, flashing his badge. Then he pulled out Starsky's Power-of-Attorney to show he was listed as next-of-kin. He had fought this battle with doctors too many times to be unprepared. Doctors usually had lips sealed tighter than a cold war spy.

 

"Can you tell me what's wrong with him? Why was he here?" Hutch asked.

 

"Wait a minute. Has he done something wrong?" The doctor still wasn't ready to be interrogated, even if Hutch did have a piece of legal paper with him. The names didn't even match. "My patient said his name was Banner, not Starsky."

 

Hutch showed the photos to the doctor and explained. "Doc, it's a really long story. He hasn't done anything wrong, but he's sick and hurt. He's been missing for a while now and I have to find him. Please. I need you to tell me everything you observed and all about the treatment you gave him."

 

The doctor nodded, deciding the blond seemed to be telling the truth. "David has a lot of problems. He was brought in suffering from smoke inhalation and some serious burns to his hands. We gave him some breathing treatments and looked after the burns. He also recently slashed his wrists, though he swore he didn't do it himself."

 

Hutch interrupted briefly. "He didn't. We're cops. Someone did that to him in an attempt on his life. Fortunately, he failed."

 

"I'm relieved to hear that. I had contemplated admitting him to psychiatry services, but he convinced me he was all right. At least, I didn't think he was a danger to himself."

 

Hutch breathed deeply at that remark. He hoped the doctor was right. If the doctor had admitted Starsky for psychiatric evaluation, though, he might still be there. That was unfortunate.

 

The man continued. "The left hand seemed in pretty good shape. He can almost make a fist with it, but the burn didn't help. We checked out his injured right hand. That seemed to be doing all right, too. He has some feeling in it, but it isn't healing as well as it should be. David looked like he hasn't been taking care of himself. We insisted he stay the night and the only reason he didn't bolt out of here is because he was too weak to fight us. We got some fluids and a little food in him. I'd say he's fifteen pounds underweight. I gave him some pain medication and an antibiotic. He had a low-grade fever and I think he has a mild infection going. The medication should help if he takes it. He checked himself out this morning."

 

Hutch was glad Starsky had received some treatment. "Should he have stayed, Doc?"

 

"Yes, he should have. He was near collapse when he arrived here. I'm afraid that infection may become worse, especially with his hands being burned and the damage to his lungs. If he doesn't keep his burns clean, eat, and get some rest, he's going to be a very sick man."

 

Hutch's chest tightened again. "Did he say where he was going?"

 

"Not really. I told him he has to start eating and he made a wisecrack about where he could get a ballpark hot dog. I suggested Chicago. He took his instructions from me and left. I'm sorry I can't tell you where he really went."

 

Hutch rubbed the back of his neck with one hand. His nerves were raw and he was nearly dropping from exhaustion himself. He thanked Dr. Bradford.

 

"Mr. Hutchinson, you're not looking well yourself. Are you all right?" The doctor could see how tired Hutch was.

 

"Yeah. Finding Starsky will fix whatever's wrong with me." He shook the doctor's hand and pulled himself up on the crutches.

 

"I suggest you go get some sleep before you take off after him. You're going to fall over if you don't."

 

Hutch smiled appreciatively and made his way back out to the rented Chevy. When he tried to pull out onto the road, he noticed that the lines on the street were splitting off into pairs and the road signs had become twins. As much as he hated it, he knew he had to pull off and crash for a few hours before he really crashed the Chevy. He turned around and returned to the hospital parking lot. As he moved north through the country, the temperature had dropped, so sleeping in the car was out of the question. Hutch didn't want to take the time to find a hotel. His heart was heavy with the thought of Starsky out in the cold with nothing but his varsity jacket for warmth. He hobbled back up to the receptionist.

 

"I'm sorry to bother you again. I'm pretty beat. If it's okay, I'm just gonna crash in your waiting room for a couple of hours, then I'll be out of your hair. Okay?"

 

She nodded, but as soon as he was out of earshot she called Dr. Bradford. A few minutes later, Hutch felt a hand on his shoulder.

 

"Mr. Hutchinson, come with me. We're not that busy tonight. You can lie down in the back. That's got to be more comfortable than in these torture-chamber rejects from the 60's the hospital calls chairs." He smiled warmly.

 

"Thanks, Doc." Hutch took no convincing. He barely had enough energy to hobble back to where Dr. Bradford led him. "Could you make sure somebody gets me up in two or three hours? I'm so tired I'm afraid I'll slide into a coma. Every minute I'm here he's still out there."

 

The doctor agreed. He turned off the light and closed the door as Hutch fell immediately into a deep sleep.

 

~*~*~*~

 

Starsky had some trouble catching a ride again. He walked along the highway for a few hours before being picked up by a man in an oxidized red AMC Pacer. Starsky thought it was the ugliest car he'd ever seen. This time his benefactor was a young man on his way back to school from a weekend at his parents' house. He hadn't been overly talkative, for which Starsky was grateful. He told the kid he wanted to listen to some jazz and wondered if he knew a good place in St. Louis. He was dropped off at a place called The Blue Note. That sounded appropriate to his mood.

 

Starsky wearily shouldered his knapsack and cruised into the smoky lounge. He found a small, unoccupied booth in the back and ordered a beer. Tonight, in addition to the regular jazz band, a blues singer was performing. She looked like a typical chanteuse with long, dyed red hair, redder lips and nails, and a silver sequined dress. Her singing was passable.

 

This bar was still a far cry from classy, but a large step up from the similarly named Blue Diamond in Oklahoma City. Tonight, he was not going to interfere with anyone, though. He just wanted to listen to some sad music, and then find a place to crawl off and sleep.

 

He sat nursing the beer for a long time, lost in thoughts of his old life. Feeling like he was in one of his cowboy movies, he felt a tear slip down his face and chuckled to himself. Great. Sitting alone in a bar, crying in my beer. What would Hutch say?

 

Starsky still wished he could stop thinking of his best friend in present terms. Maybe it would hurt less if he could think "what would Hutch have said," but he thought he might never be able to do that. He reached into his knapsack, bypassing the forgotten bottles of medication, and pulled out the poetry book. He thought about taking at least the antibiotic, but changed his mind. The waitress offered him a second beer, which he accepted, along with requesting that she bring him a couple of shots of tequila. As long as he was crying in his beer, he was going to get plowed.

 

When he'd been there about an hour, a sleazy looking woman sidled into the other seat in his booth. He looked up, somewhat bleary-eyed from the alcohol. "What do you want?" Even semi-plastered, he knew a hooker when he saw one.

 

"You look lonely, mister. Can I interest you in some company?" Her voice was raspy from smoking.

 

He shook his head in disbelief. Starsky was beginning to wonder if a neon sign constantly blinked over him reading, "derelicts, criminals, and other scum here's your man." Did he look like an easy mark? He thought that was a stupid question. Of course he did.

 

"I can't afford ya, honey, now beat it," he growled at her, returning his gaze to the page he'd been reading when he was interrupted.

 

"How do you know, you ain't asked how much," came the saucy reply.

 

"I told ya, I ain't interested, now blow."

 

"That can be arranged."

 

She just wasn't getting the hint. He sighed and closed the book. "Look, I just want to be left alone. I'm not interested. Gimme a break and scram, huh?"

 

The hooker looked disappointed but she hated to lose a sale. Maybe he would be more interested in one of her associates. "Oh, I get it. You swing the other way? That can be arranged."

 

That was the final straw. Even in his present state, Starsky was fully capable of putting out a look that clearly transmitted, "Do you WANT to die?" without his having to speak a word. The woman cowered under that look and quickly exited the booth.

 

Starsky spent hours in the bar, listening to the performers and drowning his sorrows. When he thought he was just about drunk enough to be cut off and asked to leave, he gathered his things and staggered out the back door to the alley behind the bar. He wondered about that. Why did bars always seem to have alleys in the back?

 

Looking up and down the dark scene, he spotted a homeless man shuffling over to the side of a dumpster and pulling some cardboard over himself. He wandered over to the other side of the dumpster and found it vacant. Starsky looked up at the patch of night sky he could see between the buildings. Hoping Hutch wasn't watching him from heaven, he abandoned his resolve not to sleep on the streets. His money was just about gone, his credit card had been stolen, and he refused to call anyone who could help him. So much had happened to him, Starsky just didn't care anymore. He curled up on the ground next to the dumpster, putting his head on the lumpy knapsack and pulling Hutch's jacket as close around him as he could. The night was cold and a light rain had started to fall. He thought again about taking the antibiotic, but decided he wouldn't. His fever was higher and he didn't care about that either. Then he thought about the pain pills. With all the alcohol he had consumed, a handful of those ought to finish him off easily. The thought passed quickly. Sleeping in alleyways was dangerous enough. He could get rolled again, or worse. As he drifted into a fitful sleep he couldn't help hoping if anyone attacked him there they'd do him a favor and kill him.

 

Take me to Part IV

 

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