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Die A Little

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This is the way we start our shifts.

"Shells?"

"Shells."

Shells are my partner's job. Regulations say we can only carry one box of each caliber in the car at any one time. He says when the regulations can get between us and the bad guys' bullets, he'll start paying attention to them.

"Your Beretta?"

"My Beretta. Your ’38?"

"My ’38. Flares?"

"Six flares."

"Tear gas grenades?"

"Tear gas grenades. One, two, three, four."

I hate tear gas. It's got its uses, but with my hair, I've always got a hard time getting a really tight fit on the mask. I've learned to keep a water bottle in the car.

"Shotgun?"

"Shotgun. Racked and loaded."

On the other hand, I do love the shotgun. Grandpappy taught me how to shoot when I was just a squirt, and I've always taken to it like a hog to a watermelon patch.

"Two radios."

"Two radios, with fresh batteries."

"Flashlight?"

"One flashlight."

"And the book."

The book was my idea. There's too many whippos on the street, sliding in and out through the revolving door on the courthouse, for any of us to keep up. The book evens the odds just a little.

"And the book."

Just another day on the street in Bay City . . .

My partner picked up the mike. "This is Zebra Three, log us in at sixteen-hundred." He grinned at me over the mike. "Don't want to be late for din-din."

It's an old joke between us, from right back in the academy, but the way he waggled his eyebrows made me laugh anyway. "Way you drive, sugar, we need to worry about getting there at all."

"Hey, it's pot roast night!" He gave me an old-fashioned look.

Lots of people call my partner Fat Rolly, and it's true, he is a mite too fond of his mama's home cooking. Not that I blame him. I get invited over every now and then, and no word of a lie, if I ate there more often, I'd be needing a girdle and a size twenty dress myself.

It's always been kind of a joke around the station: Fat Rolly and Sweet Alice. The mama's boy with the beer gut, and the dumb blonde from some little hick town right out of Deliverance. The day Captain Dobey partnered us, bets on how long we'd last started going around before we even got the paperwork filled out. But we've been patrolling the same district for three years now, and we're both still on the right side of the ground.

Opposites in every way, but we make it work for us. I go high, he goes low. I'm cute, he's careful. I'm the soft voice, he's the big stick. We get underestimated a lot the first time, but never twice.

That afternoon, we cruised the streets, keeping watch on the little patch of Bay City that's under our wing. It was pretty quiet—we caught old Coley trying to do a dip on some tourist, but we scared him off pretty quick. Other than that, the streets were what they always are: a toilet bowl. But for once, a quiet one.

I was just about ready to suggest calling in for a break when Rolly swore and swerved hard into a parking spot.

"Look there."

He pointed over at the next corner. A tall skinny blond kid stood propped against the newspaper box across the street, his arms wrapped around his waist. He wore a green plaid shirt that could've held two of him, and even at that distance I could see how his jeans hung off his hipbones.

"Aw, hell," I said, feeling a familiar helpless frustration sweeping over me. "Starsky's got a new boy."

"Looks like it." Rolly punched the steering wheel. "Somebody's got to get that bastard off the streets."

"You said it, partner."

Having Starsky loose in our turf sticks in my craw something fierce. He's a nasty piece of work from back east who runs a stable of boys out of a sleazy clip joint called The Pits. Rolly and I have been after him for years, but we've never been able to make anything stick. Somehow, he always manages to have everything just this side of clean whenever we bust the place. And he's got those boys of his so scared or so hooked none of them ever talk He's like some of those moonshine runners my grandpappy used to chase up through the hollers: slick, quick, and real dangerous. If you didn't know him, you might say Starsky was a mighty fine looking fella. Curly black hair, deep blue eyes with the longest lashes I've ever seen on a man, a sweet smile when he wants to use it. Got a lot of swagger and a bit of charm, but underneath he's nothing but a tough, mean street punk. He's done some illegal drag racing, runs numbers, does a little strong-arm stuff for a sleazebag drug dealer name of Forest, but mainly he lives off his stable.

Rolly and I looked at each other for a few seconds, half-wondering why we were going to bother. Then Rolly shrugged, and made to open the door. I grinned a little. My partner never could resist trying to rescue a lost puppy, and he knew without even asking that I'd back his play. It was probably too late, but maybe we could do something to get the kid off the stroll. Besides, with the real hard feelings we had against Starsky, neither of us minded trying to throw a monkey wrench into anything he had going.

We headed across the street, trying to look casual enough not to spook the kid into running. Before we got halfway there, I could tell we could've been a high-school marching band and it wouldn't have made any difference. Strung out, shivering and sweating, his hands clamped so tight against his sides the knuckles were all white. The kid wasn't seeing anything outside his own need.

Junkies always make my skin crawl a little. When I was still in uniform, I came too close to the line myself. Too much overtime and trying to prove myself as good as anybody else ended up with me being plumb worn out all the time. Seemed like I never got over one set of bruises and muscle strains before I tangled with the next one. I started popping uppers to keep awake, and the Big D to heal faster. Washed it all down with Southern Comfort and cola to relax at the end of the shift.

Once Rolly caught on, he wised me up PDQ. Told me if I didn't care about myself, I should think about my partner, or the civilians who might get hurt if I was too high or too strung out to think straight. I wasn't really hooked, but he kept an eye on me day and night for a while until I got it all sweated out of my system.

We were about two steps from the sidewalk when the kid looked up at me, and I just stopped dead. He wasn't as young as he'd first looked and my Lord, was he handsome. Oh, those eyes! Blue and wide as a clear summer sky, filled with so much pain and bewilderment it made my heart twist. How could any man who looked so good end up in such a world of hurt?

Not that I didn't know the answer to that. I felt my fists clench. Starsky was breaking him in, giving him a little lesson in what happened when he didn't bring home enough of the green.

Lord, I just wanted to wrap that boy up and take him home, look after him and wipe all the pain off that beautiful face.

While I stood there mooning, Rolly picked it up and moved so he was blocking the sidewalk. Those gorgeous eyes shifted over to him. Watching the kid straighten up and plaster a smile on his face made my heart twist again. That smile should have been open and warm—you could tell it had been, not so long ago. Now it was fake as a three dollar bill. Just another part of a hooker's bag of tricks.

"You folks looking for a good time?" His voice was beautiful too, a warm tenor like sweet iced tea on a hot day. But it shook a little with nerves, and even as he spoke, the blue eyes fell, and his face went a little pink.

For Starsky to put him out so green, and hurting like he was, meant he needed the money pretty bad, and I got angry all over again.

Even so, there was a little part of me that wondered what it would be like if I wasn't a cop and could take him up on the offer.

Rolly shot me a look that told me it was time to get back in the game. I felt myself blush and hoped he couldn't read my mind as well as he usually did.

Whatever he saw on my face made Rolly change his tactics. He relaxed all over, and instead of rousting the kid leaned on one arm against the box beside him and gave him a friendly grin. "What's your name, son?"

When he wants to, Rolly's got a way with people in trouble. He looks tough, but kinda fat and easy-going too, sort of like an uncle who's been everywhere and seen it all, and doesn't mind telling you about it if you've got time to set a spell. Makes people want to tell him stuff right back.

The kid licked his lips and looked from Rolly to me and back.

"I, um, I'm . . ." His voice trailed off into silence. He shivered a little, and his hands twisted in his shirt.

Seeing him hurting so he couldn't even remember his street name shook me out of my little fog of fantasy. I made myself think of Starsky, think about how if Rolly and I played this right, this kid might just be the wedge we needed to finally get a break.

"Are you all right, sugar?" I said, making my voice as honey-warm as I could. Rolly isn't the only one who can use a little charm.

The kid nodded and shook his head at the same time. I rubbed his arm gently. "You got somebody we can call for you?"

This time he definitely shook his head.

Damn Starsky.

"Be easier if we knew your name." That was Rolly again, picking up his side of the squeeze.

The kid took a deep breath. "Ken. Ken Hutchinson." He looked down again, hands twisting in his shirt again. I thought of a little blond boy standing in front of his father, all ashamed at being caught at some mischief, and feeling worse for making his pa think badly of him.

"Uh-huh. And where you from, Ken?"

"Duluth." The kid's voice was even quieter.

"You been in town long? You got a job or a place to stay?"

"Don't answer that." The hard New York voice made me jump a little. Stupid, to get so caught up with this kid that we weren't paying attention. Rolly didn't take his eyes off Ken so I turned, letting my jacket swing wide so everybody could get a real good look at my holster and badge.

"Starsky." I couldn't keep the loathing out of my voice.

"Hey, schweetheart." Starsky gave me a slow head-to-toe once over, and then smiled and licked his lips, slow and wet. It made me feel dirty, like something from a garbage can was crawling all over me. I wanted to shiver, but I held myself in real tight. The last thing you can afford when dealing with a lowlife like Starsky is to let him see you sweat.

"Hey, Rolly." He switched his look to my partner. "How's life on the oinker side of the street?"

"Super-sensational, Starsky," Rolly drawled out, crossing his arms and settling himself more comfortably beside Ken. That's something I admire about him, he never looses his cool. He told me once that if you can survive being the fat kid in ninth-grade gym class, nothing will ever shake you up again.

"Yeah? So why don't you head on over to Weight Watchers and leave the kid alone?"

"This isn't your business," Rolly said, waving a hand in a shoo-fly gesture. "Crawl back under your rock before we run you in."

"Sure it's my business, when the fuzz hassles a friend of mine. Me 'n Hutch, we're pals. Hutch came out to California to get into the music scene. Isn't that right, babe?"

Hutch. Somehow that suited him. Handsome Hutch. Oh Lord, I had to stop thinking like that.

Starsky smiled at him, and Hutch nodded back. Those big blue eyes of his fastened on Starsky like he was the last lifeline and the Titanic was going down.

"He's got a real nice voice," Starsky went on. "Plays the guitar pretty good, too. I'm gonna be his manager, fix him up with some gigs in joints I know, maybe even get him some time in a recording studio."

"That's bullshit," Rolly said harshly. "You listen to me, Ken. The only gigs you'll be getting from this creep will be hot-pillow joints and strip shows."

Starsky put on a wounded look. "Now who you gonna believe, Hutch? Me or this lard-ass loser?"

"Keep talkin', Starsky," Rolly growled. "Talk yourself right into jail."

"What are you hassling us for, anyway," Starsky asked. "Hutch ain't no vagrant. He's got a place to stay and some ID. Show the officer." Hutch obediently pulled a battered wallet out of his pocket. "Not a crime to be poor in Bay City yet, is it?"

"How about this?" Rolly grabbed one green plaid sleeve and yanked it up hard.

Hutch yelped and tried to shove him away, but Rolly had the leverage, and he had the arm bare almost to the shoulder before Hutch managed to twist away. Hutch turned beet red and pulled his sleeve down real quick, but I saw the needle tracks on his arm, maybe a half dozen of them right by the elbow, and all real fresh.

Too late, a bitter little voice in my head sang. Too late, too late.

"You've got him hooked already, you miserable piece of—"

I got my mouth under control, but not fast enough. Starsky smiled, a mean and dirty little look that said he knew exactly what I wanted.

"You after a piece of blondie here? It can be arranged."

He was both dead right and completely wrong and that made me even madder.

"That's it, we're taking you in." Rolly reached for his cuffs with one hand, and Starsky's arm with the other.

"Taking me in? For what?" Starsky looked outraged. Hutch looked terrified.

"Living off the avails." Rolly grinned widely. "If you're gonna pimp your boy, you really shouldn't do it with a cop listening in."

Starsky stepped back, and I could see a real hard dangerous light in his eyes. "No way, pig." One hand moved toward his jacket pocket.

My gun was out before I realized what I was intending. "Do it. Please."

"No, Starsk!" Hutch pushed away from Rolly and stumbled in between me and Starsky. He looked at me, wide-eyed and pleading. "Please don't shoot, ma'am."

God, those eyes.

Starsky slowly raised his hands and gave me another dirty smile.

"Oohh, you gonna strip search me, officer? Maybe take both of us in for a little . . . questioning?"

Rolly hit him in the gut, with every ounce of his weight in the punch. Starsky made a high wheezing noise, and folded to his knees like a wet towel. I had to fight back the urge to kick him somewhere unmentionable while he was down.

Hutch went white and swayed a little. I put my arm around his back and petted him gently.

"It'll be okay, sugar," I said softly. "We'll get you some help, and everything will turn out just fine."

Lord forgive me for turning hope into a lie.

Rolly pulled out his cuffs and started reading Starsky his rights. Hutch stood there, shivering, not hearing a word either of us said, just watching as Rolly cuffed Starsky and dragged him to the car. When I urged him along, he followed, quiet as a lamb, never taking his eyes off Starsky.

We got Starsky into a cell and Hutch into detox that night, but it didn't take on either of them. Rolly had some hopes; he figured maybe we'd gotten to Hutch in time. But I knew better, knew from the way Hutch had looked at Starsky out there on the street what the score was going to be. That boy was gone, and he wasn't going to see any kind of truth about Starsky until he hit rock bottom.

Maybe not even then.

The next morning, Starsky made bail and walked out laughing all the way. The first thing Hutch did after they let him out of detox was call him up, and they were back together inside of an hour.

We've run Hutch in maybe half a dozen times since then, and every time he's skinnier and harder. The funny thing is, he hasn't lost his looks—not the horse, or the whoring, or even being Starsky's punch bag seems to be able to dim those sky blue eyes or harden that pretty mouth. He still has some of that lost, innocent little-boy look to him. And I'll bet it still makes Starsky some good money.

Starsky's cleaned up his act some lately, gotten smarter about the kinds of jobs he does. He ran off the guy who owned The Pits a while ago, and owns the place free and clear now. Occasionally he'll let Hutch sing a few sets there. He really does have a good voice; damn shame he's selling it and everything else for his next fix.

I go there some nights, alone. I've told Rolly it's because I want to rattle Starsky's cage a little, make sure he knows we're always there. And that's at least partly true. I've got a feeling Starsky may move on up to the big time unless we can stop him cold soon. The last thing Bay City needs is another Stryker.

But mainly I go to watch my handsome Hutch. Now and then I let him buy me a drink and we flirt a little. We both pretend for a few minutes we're regular folks instead of a cop and a junkie whore. I don't do it too often though, because I know he tells Starsky everything. I'm walking too close to the line as it is, and having a scumbag like Starsky know that is asking for trouble. Like the man says in the movie, he'll make me an offer I can't refuse.

I tell Rolly you can't save everybody. Some people are just born for a world of hurt and trouble, and the good Lord himself couldn't stop them from finding it. I just never thought of myself as one of those people. Sometimes I wonder if Rolly really did me any favors talking me out of those nights with the Comfort and cola, when I take up mooning over a two-bit hustler instead.

Grandpappy used to say we all die a little every day. Our weaknesses chip pieces off our souls and they get harder and harder to gather up and put back together. There's nights when all that keeps me on the straight and narrow is knowing my partner needs me to watch his back.

So far, that's been enough.