THE ZOOKEEPER’S LAMENT
I am Captain Harold C. Dobey, aka The Zookeeper, so called by my peers in the BCPD. I know where it started, too: with that jerk Anderson over at the 7th. He’s one of the jealous ones who can’t stand to see someone else get any of the glory. Sure, he’s a decent cop; he just has a chip the size of Rhode Island on his shoulder. Anyway, it started with him; then spread to the ignorant ones who didn’t know what it meant but laughed anyway because it sounded funny. And now they all say it, most of them out of respect and envy. Respect because they know I’ve got the best team of detectives, hell, the best cops, in the city on my roster and envy because they don’t have them on theirs. Maybe Starsky and Hutchinson are a couple of loose cannons, but they’re my loose cannons. They’re my boys.
Unfortunately, today will be a perfect example of how I got that nickname, and why, in reality, while my peers envy me, they don’t actually want to be me. I’ve had to call Starsky and Hutch in when they’re supposed to be off on a long weekend, and I know there’ll be hell to pay.
After months of high-profile, high-stress cases, the two of them were already pretty much burned out by the time Starsky took a bullet in the leg a couple of weeks ago. Since then Hutch hasn’t slept much. The first night, even though the wound wasn’t life-threatening, he was at Starsky’s bedside in the hospital all night. Then he spent almost another week at Starsky’s apartment playing mother hen nights after full days on the job. And now, even with his partner back on the roster for the last few days, Hutch is still watching, hovering, protecting. He’s stretched thin, probably operating on sheer will power, and undoubtedly just a tad unstable.
He’s going to go ballistic, maybe not far short of homicidal. I know this because I’ve seen the beast that lives at payload end of his ‘way-too-short fuse. I’ve seen the mountain lion with its eyes that almost seem to glow in the dark and claws in the shape of a Colt .357 magnum Python with a six-inch barrel.
Today I am the mountain lion’s zookeeper.
I take a big swig of coffee and look at the clock again. Any minute, now.
On the positive side, I’m reasonably confident that Starsky will be able to keep his partner from attempting to do me bodily harm. I don’t expect to have to deal with Starsky’s beast, but at the same time, I can’t be too careful. He may not have such a short fuse, but he is, nonetheless, a dangerous man. Kind of like the grizzly bears at Yellowstone. He looks like a cute and cuddly teddy; then, while you’re feeding him treats, he suddenly bites your head off and eats your innards for lunch.
I hear chairs shuffling in the squad room next door. Starsky and Hutch must be here. My other detectives are no doubt now huddled against the closed door between the squad room and my office, hoping to get an earful of the barking and growling they know is coming. It’s about to hit the fan, and I sit up straight behind my desk.
My hallway door is open, and Hutch drags in first, his gaze sweeping the room, the corners, behind the door, making sure it’s safe for his partner. He realizes it’s my office he’s been reconnoitering, and he casts me a somewhat apologetic glance before lowering himself into a chair. He folds his hands in his lap and regards me with tired, red-rimmed eyes. His weariness is evident in his no-nonsense tone of voice. “So, why’d you call us in, Captain?”
Starsky, a slight limp still evident in his bounce, salutes me with his cup of coffee, closes the door, and comes up beside my desk. There’s a half-open doughnut box sitting in the corner, and there’s only one doughnut in it. I know he’s going to take it. He flashes me one of those grins that swallows up his eyes as he picks up the chocolate cake with pink icing and multi-colored sprinkles, which he knows is my favorite.
“Starsky!” I growl and threaten to slap his hand.
He ignores me. Taking a big bite from the doughnut, he leans back on the filing cabinet, hiding his smile behind his cup as he sips his coffee.
“Captain?” Hutch’s voice is a little sharper. He has no patience for the game today.
It’s a bad sign that he’s calling me “Captain”, pronouncing every letter, not using “Cap’n” or “Cap”. I wait a beat because I know this isn’t going to be pretty; then I take a deep breath and just say it. “I need you two to report to Captain Zachary at the 21st. Immediately.”
Like I expect, Hutch moves so fast I don’t even see him leave the chair. Suddenly, he’s leaning over my desk, that right index finger dangerously close to my nose. “Hell no, Captain! You know we’re scheduled to have this weekend off! We’re already packed! And Starsky’s leg--!”
“Now, look here, Hutchinson!” I bellow, cutting him off in mid-sentence as I push myself up out of my chair and lean forward in my most authoritative, angry boss manner.
On my right, I see Starsky out of the corner of my eye. He’s still chewing on the doughnut, but his smile is gone and he’s set his coffee cup down on my desk. My guess is he’s getting ready to intervene in the event that his partner decides to rip out my throat.
Hutch straightens as I stand, keeping his face nose to nose with mine, that finger still pointed like a weapon. “No, you ‘look here’, Captain! I am not --” He stops suddenly and throws his hands up in exasperation.
“What!?” he snaps, swinging around to look at his partner. They’re both silent for a couple of seconds, but I know they’re doing that weird, sort of telepathic thing they’ve got going. Finally Hutch rolls his eyes and nods angrily. “Fine!”
He shoots Starsky a look that would kill a lesser man; then drops back into his chair. But his eyes are still smoldering when he looks back to me, and his voice is hard. “Okay, what the hell is so important that you called us in here on our captain-suggested-and-approved weekend off? And it had better be important.”
Starsky is leaning against the filing cabinet again. “You’ll have to excuse my partner, Cap,” he says as he licks pink icing from his fingers. “He’s tired and a little cranky.” His voice is friendly enough, but it also carries a warning. He knows Hutchinson is on the edge, and there’s no way in hell I’m going to be allowed to push him over.
God knows, I don’t want to push him anywhere, but this case is important, and Zachary, one of my envious peers, specifically requested them. I sit down again and sigh. “Young kids are being snatched in Topanga.”
Starsky frowns and moves to stand next to his partner. I glance up at him and see that his eyes have gone dark. That’s the look many a Bay City criminal wishes they’d never seen. “When?”
“The first was a month ago.”
Hutch jumps to the edge of his chair, but he doesn’t stand. His eyes are slits, and his voice is so tight, my throat starts to hurt. “And we’re just hearing about this now?!”
“The first two are still just missing persons; no ransom, no bodies. We’ve got no MO, so we’re just guessing that they’re related. But the last one . . . .”
I meet his gaze, and, as I do, his voice softens, and his eyes are suddenly sad. “Dead?”
I don’t say anything, and they know he’s right. I push the case file across my desk to them. “Here’s everything we’ve got.”
Hutch grabs the folder and sinks back into his chair. Starsky’s look tells me that his partner’s going to be okay, and I nod.
But Starsky’s been standing too long now; he swears and shifts his weight off of his sore leg.
Without looking up, Hutch reaches around and drags another chair over. “Sit down before you fall down, dummy.”
Starsky sits, but he scoots the chair up close so he can get a good view of the folder. I’m forgotten as they begin working the case with unspoken words amid unfinished sentences. Like I said, that weird, sort of telepathic thing.
I hear chairs shuffling in the squad room again, a signal that it's over, at least for now. In a minute I'll send these two on their way to Zachary and get the other chocolate cake doughnut with pink icing and multi-colored sprinkles out of my desk drawer. For now, I'm content just to watch my boys.
I have to smile a little, because I know that in the not too distant future, the son of a bitch who’s taking those kids is going to meet his two worst nightmares.
Starsky and Hutch.
My grizzly bear and mountain lion.
Hell, yes, I’m the Zookeeper, and damn proud of it.
And now it’s feeding time at the zoo.