“If we were doomed, would you want to know it?”
“What the hell are you talking about, Starsk?”
Starsky shrugged like it didn’t matter. It drove Hutch crazy when he did that. It usually meant he was getting bored. Sometimes, it meant he’d already forgotten his question. Restless, he was. Too much time parked at the corner in front of Saint Mary’s Catholic School for Girls, right across the street from Saint Francis’s School for Boys. Waiting for Bay City’s newest monster to strike. Waiting was the part of the job they never told you about when you applied.
Monsters were something else, the reason you went into police work in the first place. They’d learned plenty about monsters at the academy. There was a mandatory course devoted to the criminally insane, and both Starsky and Hutch had passed with no problem. Evil was what it came down to, and it was predictable. You could memorize its patterns and pass the class. Evil was a soul stealer, a sniper who picked off Catholic school children at the end of the day. And yet, they knew what to do about evil. Boredom was different but not benign. Too much time, and it could eat away at what was left.
And Starsky was obviously bored. He always came up with strange questions when he was bored, but this was a new one. He invented new question games. It was one of the things he did on stakeouts. Hutch had his own ways of dealing. They’d been stationed at the school crosswalk since 7:00 that morning, a half hour before school started, just to be on the safe side. The killer usually struck at the end of the school day, but you never knew when he might change his pattern. Predictably unpredictable.
Hutch had finished his crossword puzzle by 10:00, had updated his report on the Peterson case like Dobey had asked him to, and had eaten two bananas and the good half of a bruised apple for lunch. For the past couple hours, he’d been jotting down notes in his steno pad on the propagation of houseplants, holding it on his lap against the steering wheel. Plant Propagation. That was the title he’d jotted at the top, and he’d been trying to keep it from his partner’s attention, without much luck.
Starsky had looked up the word "propagation" once, after he’d been flipping through this journal, and to Hutch’s dismay, was now mildly obsessed with his partner’s efforts to help plants reproduce. Said he’d never really thought about plants that way before. Hutch had tried to explain all the abbreviations and arrows in his many pages of notes, but Starsky brushed him off, saying he'd rather imagine it for himself. Claimed that if Hutch ever drew up a will, it would contain a steno pad full of instructions on how to keep his ferns making baby ferns long after he was gone…
Starsky repeated the question. “If we were doomed, would you want to know about it? Ahead of time, I mean.”
“Doomed?” Hutch was still stuck on that word. “You mean like in fate or destiny or something?”
“Something like that.”
“Okay, but I’m still not following.”
Hutch wasn’t following, but he was listening. In fact, he put down his pencil and tossed the notebook in the back seat, so Starsky continued, apparently satisfied to have his partner’s full attention.
“What if you woke up one morning and suddenly knew that everything was for the last time? What would you do? Would you sleep in? Would you have a second cup of coffee, even if you knew you were running late? Would you take time to breathe in the morning air, before getting into your damn fine car for the last time…?”
“Is this supposed to explain why you were late picking me up this morning?” Hutch asked with feigned suspicion.
“Hutch, this is still my turn. Shut up, and listen, will ya.” He shook his head with something like affectionate exasperation, and Hutch felt like the kid in the front row, who always had his hand up before the teacher finished the question. “So you’re up and outside, the sun’s shining, and everything’s right with the world. Except you’re not going to be in it much longer, and you know it. Are you with me?”
“I’m as with you as I’ll ever be, Starsk.”
“Good. Hey, Hutch – take a look. Does that guy look familiar?”
Alert to his partner’s change of voice, Hutch switched gears and squinted out the LTD’s windshield at the lone figure on the other side of the crosswalk. He could make out a muted green jacket, hunched shoulders, and long, dark hair half covered by a stretched out hood. Hutch was lucky he could see that much out of the filthy windshield. It was good they’d left the Torino parked outside Venice Place. Starsky would have been in and out of the car every five minutes trying to wipe off the windows. They’d been parked so long at that corner that a nearby acacia tree had dusted the glass with yellow pollen, making everything look jaundiced and slightly suspicious.
But Hutch tried his professional best to study Starsky’s suspect with clear eyes, even from his less than perfect vantage point. The man wasn’t going anywhere. He was just hunched against a telephone pole, waiting, before he took a better look at the occupants of the LTD and then moved on down the sidewalk. That’s when Hutch realized that he did recognize the man, and he let out the breath he’d been holding. Hadn’t even realized he’d been reaching for his gun, before he eased up. Funny how he was jittery and bone-tired at the same time, kind of like an insomniac with caffeine running through his veins like blood.
“Yeah, he’s familiar all right,” Hutch said, forcing himself to sound casual again. “That’s Jimmy Buckley, you remember, Mick’s friend. He deals, but I don’t think he’s the one we’re waiting for. Scum of the earth, definitely, but not really the mass murderer type.”
“Well, that’s just great - in front of an elementary school. Who are his customers? Second graders?” Starsky sounded indignant, and Hutch took hold of his partner’s arm, lest he go blowing their cover over a schoolyard dealer.
“Probably,” Hutch said. “Relax, Starsky. We can book him with something later. He’s not the main attraction today, so we’d better not get distracted.”
“Speaking of distracted, you never answered my question.”
“But you’re the one who distracted me!”
“Hutch, you’re stalling.”
Hutch sighed. “All right. You want to talk about us being doomed. You want to know if I’d want to know ahead of time.”
“Yeah, that’s right,” Starsky said, inexplicably cheerful again at having his discussion back on track. Hutch had to smile. It was so ridiculously easy to appease his partner, Hutch couldn’t figure out why he didn’t do it more often. Starsky continued, “So here’s the deal. The way it normally works, we could be having our last day, but we wouldn’t know until it was too late. So, everything that happens is the last time it’s ever gonna happen. You think you’ve got years, but you don’t. You’ve got hours, minutes, seconds. It’s almost gone. Time’s passing you by. But it’s too late. It’s too late to do anything you ever wanted to do, and–“
Hutch stopped him by placing his hand on his partner’s leg, weighing him down to the here and now, to the torn vinyl seat of the LTD. Starsky was panting, as if he’d been chasing down a suspect, and Hutch found himself trying to catch his breath as well. The original question had been kind of funny, in a Starsky sort of way, but it didn’t seem funny any more, given the circumstances. It was another day, but they never knew if it would be made up of hours or just minutes and seconds. They were biding their time, waiting for a killer who liked to target schoolchildren in plaid skorts and khaki pants.
“What’s bothering you, buddy?” he quietly asked.
Starsky managed a smile, but it was strained. “How do we keep doing this, Hutch? How long do we beat the odds? You took a bullet last month.”
“It grazed me,” Hutch interjected.
“Because you ducked in time,” Starsky said, dead serious. “What if you didn’t?”
“But I did.”
“You’re ducking around my question now.”
“Honestly, Starsk,” Hutch protested. “I don’t know what you’re asking.”
“If we were doomed,” Starsky repeated, as if trying to teach a particularly recalcitrant child. “Would you want to know?”
“You’re asking if I want to know when I’m going to die?”
Starsky frowned. “I don’t like it put it like that. Besides, I’m not talking about you. I’m talking about us. I’ve been thinking a lot about this. When we go out, we gotta go out together.”
This was a new one. It almost felt like a proposal. Not – will you live with me, but will you die with me? Starsky was looking at him so expectantly, but it had been a long time since Hutch had been the first one with all the answers.
“Buddy, the chances of us being doomed on the same day aren’t all that great, no matter what we do for a living. And no. I wouldn’t want to know ahead of time. I prefer thinking I’ve got all the time in the world. Or that we’ve got all the time in the world, if that’s how you want to think of it.”
Starsky’s face darkened, and Hutch knew he’d gotten the answer wrong.
“So, you wouldn’t want to know? Even if it meant everything was the last time?”
“Starsky, people aren’t meant to know things like that. If you knew ahead of time how and when you were going to die, what would be the point of any of it? Why would you even bother getting up in the morning? Why drink your coffee when you knew it wouldn’t matter if you stayed awake or not? Why bother to wash your car?”
Hutch gestured emphatically at the dirty windshield, realizing that he was starting to sound slightly unhinged. Why the hell was Starsky’s stupid stakeout question getting to him anyway? Damn boredom anyway. Waiting for evil to show up at the ring of a bell...
“Hutch, you never wash your car – “
“Well, why start if I knew I was going to die anyway? What would be the point?” He gestured over his shoulder at his abandoned chart of plant propagation. “Why make plants grow?”
Starsky was quiet, and Hutch tried to get himself under control. Stupid question, terrible assignment. What was the point of any of it?
There was probably no point to this long stakeout, and that should have been just as well, but Hutch longed to put an end to this thing. The killer had had his god-forsaken run, but it needed to come to an end. Good won out at the end of the day, didn’t it?
Just about every cop from every precinct in the city was parked in front of every parochial school in the county right now, waiting for school to get out. The police commissioner had no idea if this was going to work, but the mayor had ordered the mass stakeouts. It was a thankless job and an inefficient use of manpower, but it showed how desperate they were to stop these killings. Just because the killer had targeted three other parochial schools across town on random Fridays, didn’t mean that anything was going to happen to this school, on this particular day. So help him, God, if Hutch or his partner had anything to do with it, nothing was going to happen at this school today.
Starsky was still trying to explain. “For one thing, if we knew we were doomed, we’d be able to take care of things we’d been putting off.”
“Yeah? What kind of things?”
“You know, like calling home and telling your ma where you left your life insurance policy.”
“The last thing my mother would want or need is a life insurance policy for me. Do you have a policy?” Hutch was rather incredulous at this idea. “Do they even issue policies to cops?”
“Dunno, and I don’t have one, but if I knew I was doomed ahead of time, I’d sure try to get one.”
“Damnit Starsky. This is a depressing conversation in the middle of a depressing stakeout on a depressing case, and I don’t want to talk about it anymore. Have you forgotten what we’re here for?”
“I know exactly what we’re here for,” Starsky said with an angry edge to his voice that hadn’t been there before. But Hutch was just getting started.
“We’re waiting around for a monster with some helluva history with nuns and priests, who’s decided his whole mission in life is to take out as many kids as he can while – “
Starsky interrupted, “The kids that died last week…”
“A fifth grader and an eighth grader. Two boys, right? Three girls, the week before. They got up in the morning like it was any other morning. Put on those miserable, scratchy uniforms just like any other day. Bet they were glad it was almost the weekend, so they could wear anything they wanted. You know those things have got to be uncomfortable, especially when it’s smoggy like this.”
“Starsk, there’s no point to this. This isn’t how we handle things. We can’t do what we do and talk about things like this. We’ll go crazy if we do. You know that.”
“No, listen to me. My turn, remember? Hutch, those kids didn’t know. They didn’t know that their time was almost up. Maybe they spent the whole morning worrying about a math test they didn’t study for, instead of playing hooky or jumping off the monkey bars or something. It wouldn’t have mattered if they got in trouble or broke their arm. They should have been able to do what they wanted. It was their last day, and they didn’t know it. That’s what I keep thinking about. What would we do, if this was the last day we had?”
“Starsk, you and I are always jumping off the monkey bars. It’s what we do.”
“Damn it, Hutch, you’re not answering what I’m asking you.”
“Well, maybe I’m trying to concentrate on surveillance. School’s almost out, partner. We got a job we’re supposed to be doing.”
“It was just a question, Hutch.”
“It wasn’t just a question. It was the question. And no, I don’t think any of those kids would have wanted to know that they weren’t going to live long enough to be able to choose their own clothes for the weekend. Are you satisfied?”
“Not really,” Starsky said quietly, but he sounded sad. Hutch wasn’t looking at his face. Even while they’d been talking, both men were scanning the playground. “Are you? Satisfied, Hutch?”
“Yeah, I am,” Hutch said suddenly. When he broke out of his surveillance and turned to look at Starsky, it almost hurt how much he meant it. “I am satisfied. I don’t regret this. What we do, who we are. Any of this. That’s why I don’t want to know. I wouldn’t want anything to get in the way of this.”
“How do we know if this is good enough?” Starsky gestured vaguely at the empty playground, the quiet classrooms with their closed doors, the crossing guard who was smoking a cigarette. Hutch almost wished he had one himself. The smoke drifted languorously towards an unhealthy sky. They were just drifting in this waiting, and they knew it. Drifting in this job, this day, this life.
Was it good enough? Starsky hadn’t specified what he meant, but Hutch already knew. It was part of his job to know what his partner meant, even if he didn’t say it.
“It might not be good enough, but it’s ours. This is what we do. That’s what makes it good enough.”
“And you really wouldn’t want to know, even if you could know?”
“Starsk.” This time, Hutch’s voice was very kind. “What good would it do to know, anyway? What would you do if you did?”
“I’d say goodbye.” Starsky wouldn’t meet his eye, but stared relentlessly out the dirty windshield at the playground, ominous because it was so deserted. Shadows were muted when the sun was filtered through a dirty sky. “Damn it, Hutch, I’d say goodbye to you. That’s all I’d really want to do.”
Silence fell between them, and it hurt, until Hutch pulled out his pocket watch. “School’s almost out,” he said. “Five minutes.”
“He always waits a minute until after they’re out. When they’re coming out of their classrooms.”
“Hell of a world,” Hutch whispered. “When I was a kid, I used to count the minutes till the end of school. Bet they’re in those classrooms right now, doing the same. None of their minutes should be numbered, Starsk. They should have all the time in the world.”
“They will,” Starsky affirmed. “We’ll see to it, buddy.”
“One more minute. The bell rings at 2:25. I don’t see anything out there, do you?”
At the same time, the two detectives pulled their guns out of their holsters and carefully eased open the doors. The radio crackled to life. This is Dispatch. All units - be ready. They could feel it. The violence in the air. The waiting.
Starsky said. “Don’t see anything, but that don’t mean nothing. This guy’s good. Nobody sees him until he’s shooting, and then, no one sees him afterward. But Hutch, I need to tell you something. Just in case, depending on what goes down.”
“Don’t tell it to me.” Hutch turned sharply from the driver’s door. “Not here, not today.”
“It’s not going to be today.” Oddly enough, Hutch almost sounded smug, like the smart school boy he’d once been who always knew all the answers.
“How do you know?” Starsky asked, clinging to gun and his open door. A couple yards away from them, the crossing guard was putting out her cigarette, grinding it under the heel of her thick-soled shoe, and was picking up her sign. “How can you be sure?”
No hesitation. Hutch said, “Not today, Gordo. I can’t tell you why. I just know.”
And then Starsky knew it too.
They smiled at each other. It had always been part of their consolation – knowing what the other knew. They could hear the faint whine of sirens in the distance and then the metallic cackle of the school bell. Without another word, they leaned into the center of the seat, bumping shoulders. They kicked open their side doors in the same moment, ready to move at the first sound of anything, guns already drawn. Not doomed. Not today.