"Hutch, you ever believed in anything impossible?" Starsky asked.
The question, as usual with Starsky, came completely out of left field.
Hutch glanced over at his blue uniformed partner, consternation overtaking the fatigue from patrolling their beat in a black and white patrol car at five a.m. on a December morning. "Wha…"
"I don't mean like fairy tale impossible," Starsky continued without letting Hutch get a word in edgewise, driving one-handed while he gestured with the left. "Like talking mice or pumpkins turning into coaches, although taking mice might be kinda cool. I'm talking about…"
"Stuff you just never imagined, never believed were possible." He waved a finger at the golden curve of the moon riding low in the dark sky. "Like men being up there, right now while we're down here on earth."
"But obviously that is possible, because Commander Cernan walked on the moon today," Hutch pointed out. He'd watched the news coverage of Apollo 17 landing before he left for the night shift.
"But it seems impossible, right?" Starsky persisted, cruising past the parking lot where all the high school kids often hung out.
Hutch kept his eye out for fights, but in the wee hours on a Tuesday, there were few loiterers—certainly not enough to warrant stopping the car and rousting the four boys smoking beside a Chevy. At the sight of the police car, two of them automatically peeled off and began walking down Main.
"Yes, even in 1972, walking on the moon seems impossible." Hutch conceded that point. Because it did. No matter how many times he'd seen the original moon landing from 1969, it still had an air of fantasy, even if he wasn't going to give Starsky the satisfaction of saying so. "What brought this on?"
"Through the Looking Glass," Starsky said quite seriously.
Hutch felt like he was the one who had fallen down a rabbit hole. What in the hell did that have to do with space travel? "How?" he asked, regretting even his desultory curiosity immediately.
"I got bored and went to the library the other day. Just walked down the stacks until one book caught my eye." He grinned, the light of childish enjoyment in simple things dancing in his face. "I never read Looking Glass before. Alice falls through this mirror and meets all these weird creatures…"
"I've read it," Hutch said dryly, although he really didn't remember the story at all. Except maybe a clumsy white knight. "When I was eight."
"I was reading this afternoon," Starsky said. "The White Queen tells Alice that she sometimes believes six impossible things before breakfast. And that got me to thinking."
He drove the car slowly around a corner and down past the high school, which was deserted at this hour. "We got about two or three hours before most people chow down with eggs, toast and cereal, so what impossible things would you believe?"
Hutch opened his mouth to toss out a sarcastic reply but stopped before he said a word. Impossible things? One or two of his innermost fantasies involving telling Starsky what he really felt about him, or maybe kissing him, waved from the back of his brain. Hutch ruthlessly shoved them aside, going for pragmatic practicality instead. "Starsky, the pure fact that you're using the word impossible means they are not possible."
"Spoil sport." Starsky glanced over at him with something like pity on his face. "Hutch, not five minutes ago you admitted that men on the moon seemed impossible, but it isn't. So what about…" He tapped on the steering wheel.
When the same series of taps repeated twice, Hutch recognized Morse code. Not that he could read anything but S.O.S.—three short, three long and another three short. He'd learned that in Sea Scouts. But Starsky's code started with two shorts, then a grouping of one short, one long and two shorts, and more taps after that. "Where'd you learn to do that?" he asked.
"What?" Starsky gave a sly grin, as if he was way ahead of Hutch's thoughts. The trouble being, he probably was.
"Morse code, idiot," Hutch grumped, but now he had the taps in his head, and they wouldn't stop swirling around. Two shorts was…? It was on the tip of his tongue.
"Reading," Starsky said quickly. "Wasn't much to do in my neighborhood in the summer back in New York. My friend Danny and me learned Morse Code so we could talk without Nicky and Danny's brat of a brother Stuey knowing what we were saying." His fingers played a tattoo on the seat now, two shorts, a pause and then one short, one long, two shorts, followed by three long.
"O," Hutch said aloud.
"Oh?" Starsky echoed, turning the cruiser onto Third to complete the far end of the loop of their beat.
"Three long taps is O."
"Very true." Starsky chuckled. "You wanna know what impossible things I believe?"
His curiosity piqued, Hutch really wanted to know what Starsky was signalling in code, but he played along or there was no shutting his partner up. "Are there six?"
"Not yet, but there might be," Starsky hedged. "The first one is that someday we'll get one of those nifty little two way wrist radios Dick Tracy uses."
"Starsky!" Hutch groaned. "That's as likely as…" He tried to think of something comparable. "Those tricorder things on Star Trek being real."
"Exactly!" Starsky said triumphantly, as if Hutch had proved his point.
Hutch felt like he'd been bamboozled.
Starsky drove slowly down the long avenue, but there had been so few people out on such a bleak night that they hadn't had issued a single citation in the last six hours.
"Number two, we'll finish this shift without arresting anybody." Starsky raised his eyebrows at Hutch, an obvious challenge.
"That's not impossible, just improbable." Hutch held up a finger.
"Semantics," Starsky said loftily.
"You're infuriating!" Hutch shook his head. Just as infuriating was that Starsky had resumed tapping, the sequence of one short, one long and two shorts followed by the single O Hutch could decipher, and then three shorts and a long, and lastly a single short tap. He ought to know what one single tap was. Hutch dug through the recesses of his brain, unearthing memories of Sea Scouts and old man Hoffman droning on about Navajo codes and the era of the telegraph. "E?" he said out loud.
Starsky winked at him. "Third one, there's gonna be a way to bring dinosaurs back to life."
"You're dreaming!" Hutch caught sight of a young man running down the sidewalk but a closer look just proved he was out for a very early jog. "Crazy fool." He pointed out the window. "It's about to rain."
"Who are you callin' a fool? You jog all the time."
"Not at—" Hutch consulted his watch. "Five thirty in the morning."
"But it ain't impossible." Starsky stopped for a red light, looking up at the clouds drifting slowly past the moon.
Drawn by the moody expression on his partner's face, Hutch looked up, too. He could just make out the darker smudges on the moon that sometimes appeared to be a man's eyes and mouth. Starsky's eyes and mouth were much more intriguing to gaze at. Hutch glanced over at his partner, taking in the angular jut of his cheek bones and the small mole under his right eye, remembering the way those blue eyes sparkled when he was happy. Here, in the nearly dark car, Starsky's eyes were shadowed and as mysterious as the man in the moon's.
He was tapping again. Hutch had now memorized the first two groupings, so he concentrated on the third.
One long, a short and two more longs. Three longs—that he knew, another O. And finally three longs and a short. Abruptly, U popped into his head. He caught his breath, feeling like he was about to make a breakthrough. "I'm going to figure this out—you're playing me, I can tell."
"Just tapping out Morse code to pass the time," Starsky said, glancing sideways at him.
Hutch felt the invitation in Starsky's dark eyes like a physical blow. That was exactly the same 'come-hither' look Starsky tossed out to pretty girls he flirted with, the meter maids and lovely young things who worked dispatch. He had to be misinterpreting Starsky's message! It was dark in the car, maybe he'd missed some woman who must have walked by on the street just as Starsky looked over at him.
Distracted, Hutch located a pencil in the glove box. "This is a little like that old game my teacher used to play to liven up spelling class." He got out the notebook he used to jot down witness statements and details about cases, and flipped to an empty page. "We had to construct a sort of stick figure."
"Your teacher let you play hangman in class?" Starsky asked in delight. "That's terrific! We just had to write spelling words down ten times and use them in a sentence. Boring."
He beat a rhythm on the steering wheel that Hutch recognized as the third word. The one with an O and then a U. Excited, Hutch drew eight spaces on his pad and filled in the three—no, make that four--letters he had worked out. A single empty space, then a four letter word with an O in the middle and an E at the end. Finally, a three letter word ending in O and U.
Suddenly feeling stupid, Hutch stared at the pad of paper with a lump rising in his throat. Surely that couldn't mean what he was almost 100 percent certain it did.
Starsky was humming a song under his breath as he drove down Main in the opposite direction than they had gone earlier. The da-de-da-da, da-de-da… that sounded suspiciously like the theme music to the game show Jeopardy broke off abruptly when he slowed the car, pointing a finger perilously close to Hutch's nose. "Hutch, at your three o'clock, is that Jimmy the Ferret?"
Shoving Starsky's finger away, Hutch peered through the window at the figure slouched in a darkened alley. "Possibly. You must have eyes like a cat. How did you see him?"
"You wanna get out and check?" Starsky put on the brakes.
Hutch got out of the patrol car and set his uniform cap on his head, shivering at the change in temperature. It had to be nearing forty degrees. Not freezing, but cold enough for the homeless with no warm place to sleep.
He approached the man cautiously. Jimmy the Ferret was not known to be armed and dangerous, but that was no guarantee. Resting his right hand on the service revolver holstered in his utility belt, Hutch made sure the gun was ready, but didn't draw it out.
The Ferret hadn't moved even though Hutch was within ten feet of him. From behind, Hutch knew Starsky was guarding his back, staying on the curb in case there was a scuffle. He hadn't even heard Starsky get out of the car, but just instinctively knew exactly where Starsky was standing.
"Jimmy?" Hutch called out. The streetlights were to his left, providing just enough light that Jimmy's fair skin and white shirt seemed to gleam while the rest of him sank back into the shadowy black of the alley way.
Hutch moved closer, with a prickling at the back of his neck. Something was very wrong—Jimmy wasn't moving. Usually the ferrety little guy was shifting his feet, muttering constantly, picking at his scabby skin—the result of too much amphetamines in a short life. "Jimmy?"
Jimmy let out a short gasp, pain laced though the single exhalation, and tried to shift his position. That was when Hutch saw the knife handle protruding from his lower abdomen. In the dark, the blood was like ink, poured out viscous and thick over the bottom of his white shirt.
"Starsk, get a flashlight and call an ambulance!" Hutch called out, running the last few feet to Jimmy's side. He could hear Starsky hailing dispatch when he knelt down next to the injured man. This close, Jimmy smelled rank, almost like rotting meat. Hutch held his breath, pushing two fingers into Jimmy's lax wrist to find the pulse. His heart was still beating, although it was slow, and Jimmy didn't respond to Hutch's touch. He was almost cold, bleeding out on a winter morning.
"Damn," Hutch whispered softly, wondering who would have stabbed the man.
He and Starsky had seen Jimmy on the street for the last year, and while Hutch found him vastly annoying, and had tried on more than one occasion to get Jimmy into some kind of rehab, the guy was harmless. Hutch had never known him to be involved in anything other than drug abuse and panhandling. Certainly not something that would have gotten him stabbed.
"Ambulance is on its way." Starsky ran back, shining a flashlight into Hutch's eyes.
"Too bright!" Hutch complained, waving the beam of light over onto Jimmy's broken body.
"Sorry." The light bobbled and swerved, revealing piles of trash littering the alley while Starsky juggled the flashlight to hand Hutch a blue blanket to cover Jimmy with.
"Man, that's…" Starsky breathed noisily in. "Rough. Is he still breathing?"
Hutch nodded, tugging the blanket up a little higher under Jimmy's chin. "I still don't know how you saw him from the car, but it's a good thing you did."
"I thought he was just hunched down, you know? Maybe sleeping off a high." Starsky shrugged, but it was too dark for Hutch to see his face behind the bright light of the flashlight. "Think forensics can lift some prints off that knife? Find out who did it?"
"It's not impossible," Hutch said, realizing one second too late what he had just said.
"No, it's not." Starsky stiffened as he heard the ambulance siren coming from far off, and bent down to touch Jimmy's cheek. "Hutch…?
His fingers once again pressed into Jimmy's filthy wrist, Hutch was all too aware of what Starsky meant. Jimmy's pulse faltered, skipped a beat or two, sped up and finally, simply stopped.
"C'mon, Jimmy!" Hutch cried out, his voice almost lost in the scream of the approaching ambulance. "Don't do this!" He reached higher, trying to find the pulse in Jimmy's neck but there was nothing to palpate. He couldn't believe he had just felt a man die.
Two paramedics jumped out of the rig and scrambled over to the body, laying him out flat on the sidewalk. The younger man, Hutch remembered his name as John, started an IV in Jimmy's right arm to pump fluids into him. Very quickly, it was obvious that whatever they put in simply leaked out the large hole in his belly.
"We don't have authority to pronounce him," John said, with a reluctant shake of his head. "We have to cart him back to County, but there's nothing more we can do."
"Looks like the knife probably hit his descending aorta." Vern, John's partner, began packing up the equipment they'd pulled out of a large emergency kit. "He bled out fast, I'll warrant."
"Thanks, guys," Starsky said, helping John secure the straps around the body and flipping a red blanket over Jimmy's vacant eyes.
Vern snapped his kit closed and grabbed the end of the collapsible stretcher to get it into the ambulance. "You gonna meet us as County to get the knife for chain of evidence?"
"Yes." Hutch swallowed against the dry hollowness in his throat, wiping his hands on his pants. There must have been something he could have done to prevent that senseless and shocking death. It wasn't the first critically injured man he had ever seen, or even the first body—but it was a very different thing to actually feel the life seep away, heartbeat by heartbeat.
He felt absurdly like he was going to cry, or puke. For a few moments, it was a toss-up which it would be. The tears pricked his eyes, but he swallowed fast and hard, and kept the contents of his belly inside.
Hutch wadded up the blue blanket now stained with Jimmy's blood and placed it carefully in the trunk. They'd probably need it for evidence, although he wasn't sure how much manpower the department would provide to solve the murder of a homeless drug addict.
"Hutch?" Starsky touched his back, sliding one hand up to Hutch's shoulder in wordless support.
"Starsk." Hutch looked into his partner's face, half in shadow from the distance street lamp. There was just enough light to see the unmistakable streak of a tear down Starsky's cheek. Hutch felt inordinately comforted. "At least Jimmy wasn't alone."
And there was someone to cry for his passing.
"I…" Starsky began.
Unexpectedly, Hutch remembered that two short taps in Morse code was I. He'd solved the code! "I love you," he said without thinking, without taking a single moment to filter what came out of his mouth.
Starsky ducked his head and looked up at Hutch with a half embarrassed, half bashful smile. "Yeah…that was one of those impossible things I wanted to believe before breakfast."
There were butterflies in his belly again. Hutch was having a hard time getting past the idea that the two of them were both wanting the same thing, and neither of them had had the courage to make the impossible reality.
"Hutch, it's okay if you don't!" Starsky said all in a rush. "I mean, I know you just got out of a bad marriage, and I didn’t want you to…to feel obligated or anything because…"
"Starsky, would you just shut up?" Hutch poked a finger at him, right over his heart. "I know exactly how you feel. If you think it's an impossible dream, then you don't know me as well as you think you do."
Starsky gaped at him. "You're beginning to sound like me!"
Hutch would have kissed that face right there and then. He wanted to badly, but not on duty. "I love you," he whispered, even though there wasn't anyone else on the deserted, pre-dawn sidewalk. "I love you, and I always have."
"I knew there was something I liked about you, Blondie," Starsky said softly. He waved a hand at the blood stain that was all that was left of Jimmy. "Wonder if he had anyone….?"
"Besides us to mourn his death?" Hutch felt a strange twist in his belly, like a premonition he didn't want to acknowledge. "Everybody's got some kind of family, or a loved one, Starsk," he said, and held Starsky's hand for just a moment, letting the impossible turn into a lifetime of possibilities. "I don't even know his last name, do you?"
"Probably not ferret." Starsky wiggled his fingers against Hutch's palm and then let go, walking back to the patrol car. "We'll do that for him, Hutch," he said with determination. "We'll find his somebody, where ever that is, and solve his murder. Give him—whadda the headshrinkers call it?"
"Closure," Hutch answered, sliding into the passenger seat again. "That's good, Starsk. I'd want someone to do that for me if…"
"You ain't ever gonna die unloved, Hutch. No way, no how." Starsky looked across the car at him with a fierceness that said everything.
Hutch caught his breath, suddenly dazzled at the sight of his partner, and realized the sun must be rising because Starsky seemed to be bathed in a glowing pink and golden brilliance.
"Nothing is impossible when you put it that way, mushbrain," Hutch said, his heart overflowing with happiness. He couldn't wait to get off shift and see what other impossible things they could come up with before breakfast.
"Men on the moon got nothing on us, Hutch." Starsky winked and steered the car back into traffic. "Hey! I got my fourth—no, make that fifth impossible thing…"
"Yes?" Hutch asked, far more interested in the game now.
"That someday, we're gonna be detectives with gold badges—and I'll be driving the flashiest car in town."
"Starsky, you just keep on dreaming and I'll be right beside you all the way."