“Well, the take was maybe a hundred thousand. With that kinda money, a guy's brains can go out to lunch.”
“Aw, come on, Starsk, we're talkin' about Huggy.”
Starsky's weird sound of agreement with Hutch quietly infuriated him. But the stubborn, closed look on Starsky's face told Hutch he'd never find out why his partner would think his childhood friend's brains had left the building.
Huggy Bear, shifting nervously from one foot to the other, knocked on the front door of the Goreckis' modest bungalow, not far from the projects where he and his large, extended family lived.
The door opened to reveal a short, round-bodied woman who favored Starsky enough for anyone to know they were blood.
The woman gave him a sunny smile. “Why, Lincoln! It's so good to see you.”
Huggy hid his grimace at the use of his given name. “Uh, you, too, Mrs. Gorecki. Starsky here?”
“Right to the point today, I see. Yes, he's here. We picked him up from the bus station early this morning. I think he's taking a nap before I serve lunch. Cross-country on a bus is not the easiest thing to do.” She smiled at him again. “Will you join us?”
Even knowing Starsky's Aunt Rose could make water taste bad, he was hungry enough to accept the invitation.
“Good!” Before she could let him in the house, David was at her back. Somehow, he'd raced from his tiny room off the kitchen to the front door without a sound. Huggy laughed when he saw the curly-headed boy peering at him over his aunt's shoulder.
“Hey, Hug!” He danced around Rose and joined his friend on the small porch. They embraced briefly before parting and laughing their happiness at being together again.
“Davey! Please call your friend by his rightful name. And you, Lincoln -”
Starsky cut her off with, “Huggy Bear.”
Rose arched an eyebrow and drew her lips into a thin line that promised her nephew that he couldn't ride his bike for a week. “Lincoln,” she said, stressing the name, “you should call him David or Davey.”
“Aw, Aunt Rose, everybody's gotta nickname or their last name's used, like me. 'Sides, Davey's a kid's name.”
“You're fifteen, David. Still a boy.”
Starsky rolled his eyes. “Am not. I had my bar mitzvah two years ago.”
Rose tucked a stray strand of hair behind her ear then smoothed her apron. “Well, then, stop acting like a child.” She gave him a teasing look that took the sting from her words. “Why don't you boys catch up while I finish preparing lunch?”
“Okay, Aunt Rose.” Two seconds later, they were sitting side by side on the curb, away from the prying ears of a Jewish surrogate-mother.
“So how was New Yawk, Starsky? Have fun at home with all your old buddies?”
Starsky became pensive. “Don't feel like home any more, Huggy,” he admitted. “I been here only two years, except for the three weeks each summer I spend with Ma and Nicky, but this feels more like home than Brooklyn ever did in some ways.”
“That's a good thing, ain't it?”
Starsky lightened up. “Guess so.” Then he turned solemn. “The bus tickets cost a lot, and I know Ma can't really afford it. While I was there, we hardly had any meat. And she's growin' a lot of her own vegetables now.”
Huggy sighed with resignation. “Times be tough for all us po' folks.” More so for mine, with so many mouths to feed.
“Yeah. I hate bein' hungry alla time. And I forgot what chocolate tastes like.”
“Starsky, my brother, we need to find us a gig where we can make some moola so we can indulge in the finer things in life, like chocolate for you and meat for me.”
“I hear ya. Anything happen while I was gone?”
Huggy shrugged. “If you call a rumble on the east side between three gangs anything. Some guy from the River Rats you don't know saved my life. We coulda used you, Starsky, with you knowin' all those fightin' moves that cop taught you.”
They jumped when a booming voice from a well-dressed black man they hadn't noticed come up behind them say, “I couldn't help overhearing your conversation, gentlemen.”
Starsky and Huggy looked at each other with surprise. No one had ever called them “gentlemen.”
“If you're willing, I've got some work you can do for me. Easy money, too.”
Huggy snorted. “Money ain't nevah easy.”
“Oh, but for you boys, it would be.” His pitch reminded Starsky of one of those slick carnies at Coney Island, trying to get you to waste your few coins on games that were virtually impossible to win. “You're exactly what my customers are looking for.”
“And what would that be, mistah?” Starsky said, his accent growing thicker under the bad vibes from this stranger.
“Two very attractive young men, just coming into prime manhood, with so much to offer.”
Both boys were beginning to feel uncomfortable, yet were reluctant to dismiss the man outright. After all, they were starving and willing to do anything to alleviate that emptiness.
“We ain't got nothin' to offer, 'cept maybe strong arms and backs. Ain't that right, Starsky?”
“Right, Hug. We'll work hard, paintin' houses, mowin' lawns, whatever.”
The stranger threw his head back and emitted a laugh from deep within his chest. “You boys are too fine for manual labor. I'm thinking you'd do the 'whatever.'”
Again Starsky and Huggy looked at each other, but this time with puzzlement.
“Looky here, boys. All you have to do is enjoy the company of someone willing to pay for it and do whatever he says. I get some of that money, and you get the rest. Simple and easy.”
Their discomfort increased, but so did their hunger.
“Ya know, Starsky, I sure could use that money. My family wouldn't have to go hungry every night. I could feed 'em. Nothin's as good as a full belly, and one of these days, I'd like to make that happen for anybody who needs grub.”
Starsky smirked, not quite agreeing with Huggy that a full belly was the greatest thing going; he knew of a contender for that title. He'd learned that last summer—and relearned that and more this summer—from the slightly older Meryl O'Neill with curly strawberry-blonde hair.
Then it hit him—what this man wanted them to do. He gulped, tried not to show his anger and fear, tried not run and leave Huggy stranded with this creep. “Lookit, mistah --”
“Call me Bosco, like the delicious chocolate syrup that has the same shiny color as my beautiful skin.”
Starsky was ready to say an emphatic and resounding No, but a more desperate Huggy was sliding into a Yes. He understood that, because Huggy went hungry a lot more than he did. He elbowed his friend, easily feeling the ribs, and said in an anxious whisper, “You do know what he's talkin' about, don'cha? Don't be stupid!”
“I ain't stupid, Starsky. I'm hongry.”
Unbeknownst to them, someone had been watching the little gathering in front of the Gorecki place. He left his house and strode to the three people.
Starsky noticed his neighbor, wearing his cop uniform, first. “Mr. Blaine!”
“Glad you've back, David,” he said, even while his eyes were on the adult. “So, Leroy, you're recruiting in this neighborhood now?”
“Hey, Officer, I was just passing the time of day with these sweet young men. No harm done.”
“And there won't be. Go back to Mandalay Heights. You're not welcome here. And if I see you in this area again, I'll arrest you for loitering and anything else I can think of.”
“Okay, okay,” Bosco said, holding his hands up in surrender. He turned back to Starsky and Huggy. “Gentlemen, it's been a pleasure.” He saluted with two fingers before sauntering off.
Blaine placed his hands on his hips. “If this... Bosco tries to talk to you again, run away and head for the nearest adult you trust. He wants you to do things that should only be between consenting adults. He's dangerous and not beyond snatching you off the street.”
“Yes, sir,” they said in unison.
“David, Huggy, you weren't about to agree to work for him, were you?”
Both boys hung their heads. Starsky spoke first.
“I was tempted, sir, because it sure would be nice to have a sandwich or taco any time I wanted, 'cause I'm always starvin', but I figured out what he was wantin' us to do.”
“'Shamed to say I was gonna say yes, Officer. I'd do just about anything to help put food on my family's table.”
Blaine exhaled harshly and clenched his fists. “Remember, boys, hunger, and a lot of other things, can make you stupid. All I'm asking is that you think before jumping into something you have the slightest doubt about.”
Again, they chorused a “Yes, sir.” They looked up at the cop.
“Have you boys had lunch yet?”
Starsky shook his head and said, “Nah. Aunt Rose is fixin' it, though.”
“My wife is doing some baking for the church bazaar. After you finish lunch, go see her and tell her I sent you for a dozen cookies each.”
Starsky's eyes widened. “Chocolate?”
“I think so. Definitely peanut butter.”
In the car driving away from Huggy's bar, silence reigned until Hutch couldn't take Starsky's sober mood any longer.
“Starsky, you must have a reason why you think it's possible for Huggy to have absconded with the cash.”
“It's history, Hutch. Water under the bridge and out to sea.”
“If it made such an impact, don't you think I deserve to know? After all, he's my friend, too.”
Starsky licked his lips. “Okay, I'll sum it up for you. There's a lot of things that can make you stupid. Now, how about a quick bite to eat? I'm hungry.”
Hutch shook his head. “You're perpetually hungry, Starsky. That must be one of the many things that make you stupid.”
Starsky smiled and shrugged off what was probably meant as a dig since he wouldn't reveal this little piece of his history with Huggy. “You could say that.”