Hutch waited outside the Courtroom B, feeling as though dozens of tiny, winged creatures were waging a battle in his gut. His palms were sweaty. He’d changed his mind a dozen times about coming. He tried to tell himself that what had happened between Duluth and Des Moines no longer mattered. But the painful memories had come back to haunt him, invading his dreams and stealing his sleep. Even Starsky had commented that he’d looked paler than usual, urging him to switch from bean sprouts to beef. But what Hutch needed was to convince himself that the past truly was the past.
Hutch had looked up Arthur Solkin’s record without Starsky’s knowledge. That in itself left him feeling sullied. Hutch had never felt the need to go around his partner before. Solkin had been brought in for petty theft and contributing to the delinquency of a minor - a charge that made Hutch’s blood run cold. His pre-trial had been set for that afternoon. Hutch told Starsky he had a dentist appointment, making sure to say it was for a routine cleaning and not a root canal or some other procedure Starsky would most likely ask about later in an offhand way as if he wasn’t all that concerned. But the mere asking about such things made Hutch know that he really was. In so many little ways they’d each become their partner’s keeper.
Forty-five minutes later the courtroom doors swung open and there he was. Artie Solkin - older of course, but also greasier and even more rumpled than he'd been twelve years ago. He sported a jacket straight from Goodwill and godawful two-toned shoes. His eyes showed even more malevolence, if possible. Small and dark and burning with a dozen sleazy schemes.
Artie stopped short when he saw Hutch and squinted at him as if trying to remember if he knew him from somewhere.
He doesn’t, Hutch thought to himself fiercely. In fact, he never did.
“Do we know each other?” Artie finally asked.
Hutch stood immobile, lips tight, saying nothing.
“Do you have some business with my client?” a middle-aged man who had followed Artie out of the courtroom, stepped in. Solkin’s attorney, no doubt. The cheap suit and bad haircut said he was the kind of lawyer whose bread-and-butter came from smoothing over DUIs and drug raps, with a few questionable personal injury cases thrown in for good measure.
“I just came to find out what kind of deal this slime ball got,” Hutch stated finally.
“There’s no call for addressing Mr. Solkin in that manner,” the attorney said loftily, but his eyes darted around the hallway, most likely looking for security officers among the people milling about, revealing to Hutch that he wasn't nearly as self-assured as he tried to appear.
“I didn’t do anything. I just tried to return an old lady’s purse after some punk grabbed it.” Artie said, his eyes hard and glittering like marbles. “That’s all.”
“What you mean is, you talked some juvenile delinquent into stealing for you and ended up getting caught. Then you tried to make yourself out as a Good Samaritan while some poor kid took the fall,” Hutch said, interpreting the police report. “I know exactly how you operate.”
“What a minute . . . ” Artie said, brushing off his lawyer who was gesturing for him to walk away. “I do know you. Ken . . . something. Yeah, it’s hard to forget a face like yours. You hitched a ride with me in Minnesota about ten or so years ago. Maybe longer.” A cold smile spread across Artie’s face.
Ken felt as if he’d been hit by an ocean wave, surprising him with its intensity and making him fight for balance. He didn’t confirm or deny Artie’s statement. “Like I said, I know how you operate so I suggest you keep your nose clean if you plan on sticking around here.”
“Now Kenny boy, what do you have against old Artie? I thought we were friends.”
Hutch didn’t know which he clenched tighter - his jaws and his fists. “We were never friends. I doubt you know the meaning of the word. And I meant what I said. I just so happen to be a detective in this town.”
Artie’s eyes widened slightly. “A detective?” he crooned with sarcasm and Hutch was mortified to feel his face redden. “That’s quite a move up in the world from the last time I saw you. A snot-nosed punk who thought he was too big for his britches. It’s all coming back to me now.” Artie looked him up and down, then motioned for his lawyer to go on without him. “You know, you’re just as pretty as you were back then. No - back then you were soft. Now you have a hard edge. Tell me, what kind of background check do you need for a job like yours? What would your cop friends think if . . . ”
“Don’t think you can threaten me,” Hutch spat out.
“Tell you what, Detective, I’ll stay on my side of town and you stay on yours, and we’ll both get along just fine.” Artie pasted on a self-satisfied smile thinking he’d gotten the upper hand, then turned and walked away. Hutch’s stomach roiled thinking that maybe Artie was right - at least for the time being.
“You talking about Iowa made me remember. I have an aunt in Des Moines I promised I’d look in on the next time I was in the area,” Artie said the following morning as he sipped the bitter coffee he’d gotten from the motel office. “I could head that way and drop you off wherever you want.”
Artie’s proposition should have pleased Ken. He’d wanted nothing more than to get away from the oddball that morning, but to turn down the ride seemed foolish. At the moment, a lift in Artie’s junky Chevy was the quickest and easiest way out of Minnesota and away from the things he was so desperate to escape. The man gave Ken the creeps in a way he couldn’t quite put a finger on. They’d shared a room in a low-budget motel off of Route 35. Ken was happy for the warm shower and mattress, but hearing Artie’s snore less than four feet away left him as sleepless as had the cold, abandoned shed.
Ken had given Artie twenty dollars for his share of the room. Another twenty for gas would surely be enough to get him near Des Moines, leaving him with a ten spot. From there, all he’d have to do, hopefully, was approach a few farms to ask for work and board. He wouldn’t even mind a place in a barn, warmed by the comforting presence of animals. Beyond that, he didn’t want to think.
After a breakfast -- orange juice and toast for Ken, watery scrambled eggs and greasy bacon Artie swallowed with gusto -- they headed south again. Artie kept up an friendly running conversation as the miles flew by, while Ken contributed just enough to be polite. But the man seemed to know exactly the right things to say to get inside Ken’s head, to play on his sensibilities. He talked about losing his mom when he was young, then traveling from place to place with his dad, never really feeling that he belonged. “We make our own families, Kenny boy. We outcasts need to stick together, look out for each other. The big-wigs don’t care anything about people like us.”
Ken had to admit, Artie made some sense. Ken didn’t fit in. But that didn’t mean he deserved to be brushed aside. Maybe he wasn’t running away from something as much as he was looking to find something. Somewhere he could be himself; people who would accept him as he was. Ken felt himself beginning to relax in the front seat of the Chevy despite himself. Artie seemed to understand him in an offbeat kind of way.
Outside of Clear Fork, Iowa, Artie pulled into a Shell station. He handed a faded credit card to the overall-clad attendant and told him to ‘fill it up,' only to have the attendant return to their car a few minutes later.
“I’m sorry sir, this card was declined.”
“I was afraid of that,” Artie said, not missing a beat. “I’m sure it’s just a mix up with my payment. It probably crossed in the mail. I’ve been on the road for the past few weeks. What about you, kid?” Artie turned to Ken.
Ken searched his jeans pocket and pulled out a couple of bills - the last of his money. Artie took it from him without hesitation and passed it through the car’s window. “Put in as much as this will get.”
The attendant counted the bills in his grease-stained fingers, pocketed it, then turned his attention to the pump.
“What are we going to do now?” Ken asked, feeling a little flustered. The gas paid for with the last of Ken’s money wouldn’t get them far.
“This is a bit of a problem,” Artie sighed. He thrummed his short, stubby fingers on the worn grip of the steering wheel. “But if we put our heads together, I’m sure we’ll think of something.”
When the attendant had finished pumping their gas and waved them an ‘all clear,’ Artie pulled into the lot of a donut shop across the street. “I think better on a full stomach,” he explained. They went in and took seats at the counter. The waitress was chattering on the phone in the back and the display of donuts behind it was half empty, but Artie didn’t seem all that interested in donuts anyway. Neither was Ken. Artie flicked his gaze around the store while Ken fought with his misgivings. He even thought about calling his folks but quickly brushed off the idea. He’d gotten himself into this, it was up to him to get himself out. He’d call them when he knew what he was doing, he told himself, if only just to let them know he was okay.
“Listen, kid. This isn’t as hopeless as it looks.” Artie jutted his chin to indicate the cash register. All I have to do is distract the waitress while you get some cash from the drawer. Just a twenty or something.” Ken imagined that his expression reflected his shock so Artie added, “Just enough for another tank of gas. When I get to Des Moines I’ll get a hold of my bank and we’ll straighten this all out.”
“You mean, r . . . rob them?”
“They won’t miss it,” Artie cajoled. “And right now we need it more than they do. I’ll pay it back next time I pass through. I promise.” Artie gave him a friendly nudge with his shoulder. “I would do it, but it’ll be better if you do. You won’t get in any trouble even if you’re caught. You’re a juvie. They’ll let you go with a lecture. Are you in?”
Ken couldn’t go back to Duluth, not now. “Yeah,” he cleared his throat. “Yeah, sh . . sure.”
“Good,” Artie patted his arm and smiled. “Don’t worry about it. It will be easy.”
Artie was right. It was easy. Artie looked out for the waitress, who was still on the phone and sounding like she was arguing with a husband or boyfriend, while Ken studied the cash register. It was old and opened easily. There wasn’t much in it, but Ken slipped out a twenty dollar bill and shoved it in his pocket.
“Don’t ask me to do that again,” Ken nearly shouted at Artie when they got back in the car. The bill seemed to burn his skin through the fabric of his jeans.
“Sure, sure, kid. I get it,” Artie said with an edge of bitterness Ken hadn’t heard from him before. “You’re one of those kids who’s never been hungry. Never gone without. What would you know about it?”
Ken felt chastised, but it wasn’t for the crime he’d just committed. It was because Artie spoke the truth. He had never been hungry or gone without. The closest he’d come to deprivation was when he worked at his church’s charity drive, organizing winter coats and care packages destined for who knew where. The work made him think about the people who would be the recipients of his largess. Single moms and men trying to make it on disability pay. Children who had no control over their own lives. Who was he to judge? And he had the strangest feeling that he didn’t want to disappoint his new friend. His overactive need for acceptance was another one of his flaws. “I’m sorry,” he found himself mumbling. Everything felt upside down. Wrong was right and right was wrong. He felt so confused.
“That’s okay, Ken. We’re still friends, right?” Ken nodded. They drove for miles through the heart of farm country - vast stretches of open land dotted by white clapboard houses, red barns with Mail Pouch Tobacco in big white lettering and sturdy silos thrusting into the sky. Fields that had been golden with corn and wheat a weeks before now lay barren and brown.
“Tell me where you want dropped off,” Artie announced after a while.
Ken didn’t know what to say. He’d been desperate to get out on his own, to make a new life, but imagining himself alone in the middle of nowhere, where the landscape threatened to swallow him, was suddenly more daunting than he cared to admit. Seeing the fallow fields of fall made him realize work may be harder to come by than he’d Imagined. Riding in Artie’s warm car - messy as it was - and listening to his sympathetic chatter had become almost comforting.
Ken could feel the man’s eyes on him, peeling him layer by layer as they switched between himself and the road. “You don’t have a cousin in Iowa, do you?”
Artie took a hand off the steering wheel and reached over to pat Ken’s thigh. “That’s no problem. I get it. No one understands you at home.” Hot tears sprung to Ken’s eyes and he wiped them away angrily. He’d always been too sensitive by half. “Old Artie understands. We’re two of a kind, Kenny boy. Tell ya what. I’ll take you as far as Des Moines. You can decide what to do from there.”
Ken just nodded. Nothing was going the way he had expected. But he told himself he would work things out. Despite what anyone thought, he wasn’t weak. He wouldn’t give up.