“Hutch, listen to me. I’m sorry. I should’ve dropped when you told me.”
In the moonlight, he could see Hutch’s expression. Amused, a little pissed off. In a lot of pain. Looking at him with furrowed tenderness despite everything.
“C’mon… Stark… y-you never listen to anything I tell you.”
“How’d you know they were there?”
“Streetlight came on… I saw shadows.”
“You wouldn’t be hurt if I’d listened. You gotta forgive me, Hutch.”
“Dummy….” Hutch was getting harder and harder to understand. “…Forgave you ‘fore we hit the ground….”
“What do you want me to do?” Starsky hated himself for asking.
“Stay. Don’t… go.”
“Gotta get help, Hutch. I can’t stop this.”
“Don’t need to. Gonna be all right, Starsk…I’ve got this...”
I’ve got this. What the hell did Hutch mean by that? He didn’t like the way this was playing out. Starsky had seen many men drawn into death like it was a dark mercy. He’d have begged, if it would do any good.
It was Hutch wanted, and it was all Starsky had to give. That’s what it came down to. Fiercely, Starsky curled himself around his best friend, one hand pressing down on the balled up jacket to keep the blood in. With the other, he held on tight to his partner’s hand.
A report of gunfire had been called in to Metro, but the caller didn’t give a specific location and had left the receiver of the payphone dangling by the cord. Tracing the call took time, and doing a search of every dead-end street and back alley in the area took even longer. By the time the patrol made it to the alley, it was almost dawn. It was already November but warm, and there was mist rising from the places where the rain hadn’t dried. All the streetlights were blinking off, one by one, and Officer Greg Riggins might have missed the two men lying on the ground near an abandoned sofa, if it hadn’t been for the fact that one streetlight had stayed inexplicably on. It cut like a beacon through the gray morning, and it drew Riggins’s attention to the two broken bodies that lay in its misty path of light.
“Oh shit,” Riggins swore.
This one was bad. Blood everywhere. For a moment, he considered going straight to the patrol car to call for a coroner’s wagon, along with an ambulance and backup. But there was something familiar about the two men, and glancing over his shoulder for his partner, Riggins moved forward on his own.
Covered with blood and filth and folded up next to each other, they were holding hands, and the sight triggered a groan of recognition in Riggins. Starsky and Hutch. They’d always been friendly and decent to him, even when he’d been a scared rookie, straight out of the academy. Crouching alongside the two, Riggins didn’t take a breath of his own until he’d found the pulse at Starsky’s neck. He didn’t bother checking for Hutchinson’s. One man was alive, and that was enough to make him sprint all the way back to the patrol car. Moving like that, Riggins almost barreled into his own partner.
“Call it in,” he panted. “Officers down. Hutchinson and Starsky. Starsky’s alive but barely. And Freeman? Hurry it up, alright?”
Riggins hurried back to the alley. Before he crouched down to figure out who needed saving the most, he blew out a long breath, and looked up at the still flickering streetlamp. Almost by its own volition, it blinked off. Not for the first time, Officer Riggins wondered if he was cut out for this. The job was a heartbreaker.
The first ambulance took a ridiculous amount of time to finally get there. Nobody seemed to know that the alley existed…dead ends were always last to be updated on the maps.
Starsky woke up in the back of an ambulance, surrounded by people who seemed to know what they were doing.
He was alone.
First, he tore the oxygen mask off before anyone could figure out what he was trying to do and stop him. Then, he reached for his IV.
“Where is he?”
“Detective, please calm down –“
“Where is he? Why isn’t he here? He was worse off than I was!”
“Can someone help me calm this man down? Please, Detective, you’re pulling out your IV-”
“My partner. I want my partner. That’s what’ll calm me down, damn it. I promised I wouldn’t leave him.”
“Detective Starsky, you’ve been shot. You’ve lost a lot of blood. If you don’t lie back down, I’m going to be forced to sedate you, which is not something I want to do right now. Your blood pressure is already –“
“Please tell me where my partner is.” Starsky’s voice came out as a sob, and it did the trick. Someone felt sorry for him.
A second EMT leaned over and explained, “Your partner’s ahead of us, in another ambulance. They had to get him stabilized, so they took him first.”
“He was when they left,” the EMT said, not unkindly. “You need to take it easy. We’ll be at Memorial in a couple minutes.”
Starsky couldn’t wait that long, but he couldn’t keep his eyes open any longer.
“I promised I wouldn’t leave him,” he said, before everything faded into darkness again.
Later, Starsky found out that Dobey had pulled every string he had to get them put in the same room, even though Hutch really should have stayed in the ICU for another day. Hutch was hooked up to a host of apparatuses that looked like something out of “Modern Medical Marvels,” the late night show Starsky watched when he couldn’t sleep. He was off the ventilator, but breathing had to be the only thing that Kenneth Hutchinson didn’t need help with. Machines kept time all around him, and a unit of blood was dripping through a tube into his arm.
As for Starsky, he’d woken up with a throbbing leg, wrapped stiff with bandages, as well as a headache that made last year’s epic hangover seem like a kink in his neck. Starsky had a simple IV taped to the top of his hand and an almost unbearable sense of gratitude that somehow, a miracle had happened after all, apparently while he was sleeping.
Once he got over the shock of all the machines, Starsky realized that his partner was awake. Remarkably, Hutch looked absurdly self-satisfied for a man with wires and tubes coming out of most of his body orifices.
“See…” was the first thing Hutch said in his exhausted and somewhat doped up voice. “I was right…we’re fine.”
Unbelievable! Starsky’s head hurt, but he had to shake it anyways. Fine?
Do you know what you made me do? Do you know what a chance I took, just because you asked me?
But Starsky couldn’t get the words out. He had to look away.
“Gonna talk to me, Starsk?”
“I shoulda gone for help.”
“You almost died.”
“But you could have.”
“I wanted you to stay.”
“Wasn’t worth the risk, Blintz.”
“Always worth it…” Hutch mumbled, his eyes closing. “…Told you they’d find us in time… my turn to be right…. got that, Starsk?”
“Got that, but if they didn’t find us in time, I’d’ve killed you myself.” Unappeased, Starsky turned to glare at his partner, but Hutch was all out. His hair was in his eyes. Looked like a little kid, sleeping like that. “S’okay,” he added quietly and unnecessarily. “I’ll keep watch now.”
Starsky kept himself awake by drumming his fingertips against his bandaged palms, trying to figure how this would play itself out. Usually, he bounced back remarkably from every kind of trauma, but this time, Starsky found himself bouncing between absolute relief and abject terror, without a pause in between. He couldn’t stop the grim possibilities from playing themselves out in his head.
He and Hutch should quit while they were ahead. Choose a safer job, a safer life. How long could they push their luck before it ran out for good?
All his worries made him feel like he was turning into a paranoid doppelganger of his all too introspective partner. And yet, next to him, Hutch was dozing away in a blissful albeit medicated sleep. Starsky knew that his partner’s reprieve was temporary. Hutch’s painkillers would wear off, and then there’d be plenty of pain and second-guessing to go around. Starsky shifted his aching leg -- apparently, his wound hadn’t been bad enough for the good stuff – and rolled over a bit, taking a good, long look at his partner.
Hutch was out of it, but Starsky knew that didn’t stop him from thinking. It wouldn’t take long before all Hutch’s thinking turned to worrying. When he didn’t have anything to worry about, Hutch usually dreamed something up. There’d been the time when Hutch had convinced himself he had a tumor in his eye. For weeks, he complained he could “see” something obscuring his vision, and after a while, it was all he could think about. Finally, under threat of being dragged into the ER at gunpoint by his partner, Hutch saw an amused department doctor who patiently explained that what he had was simply a “floater.” It wasn’t a tumor at all, but simply a shadow-like shape drifting across his field of vision. Everyone had floaters. It was just that most people were too busy to pay attention to shadows.
Starsky was almost always too busy to pay attention to the shadows that laid in wait for them. That heedlessness had almost cost their lives this time, and he knew it. But he knew something else as well. Starsky took a deep breath, before acknowledging a basic truth. Starsky couldn’t afford to turn into his partner. Hutch needed Starsky to be the way he was, the same way that he needed Hutch.
In the end, it took a lot of doing to not unhook his IV, while using his hands to roll his bed across the aisle and push it up against his partner’s. Hutch was sleeping nice and easy. The machines were taking care of what the painkillers couldn’t handle. It wasn’t like there was anything Starsky could do by staying close – he’d already kept his promise. But Starsky needed to be close enough to hear his partner breathe.
That’s what it came down to – the debt between partners. It was about the air that they breathed, more than anything. Every single day, they had to offer up as their last. But sometimes, things didn’t go from bad to worse. Sometimes, things got better.
Starsky reached over and took hold of his partner’s hand. He held on tight, as if anyone would try and separate them. As he closed his eyes, he knew Hutch was right. It took two to live the life they’d been born for.