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Between This Breath and the One That Follows

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“In the space, the pause between this breath and the one that follows, you have made a home inside me.”
― Tyler Knott Gregson

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

The January afternoon was sunny and warm, perfect California winter weather. Families were picnicking and children playing and having fun. One collection of younger children was playing a raucous game of tag, another few playing catch. A group of older girls had a double-dutch competition going. And down by the pond several children were playing with their little toy boats, some racing and some just sailing.

With the families choosing to spread their blankets over the grass, the picnic tables set back from the pond were empty.

Except for one.

Sitting atop one table set slightly off from the rest was a young man, smoking a cigarette. Dressed in an Army jacket and jeans, with combat boots and a knit cap on his almost hairless head, he could see the entire area from his position.

He continually scanned the zone and he watched.

David Michael Starsky was just five months removed from his life as a soldier, being mustered out the previous September. As he sat here, watching the kids, his thoughts wandered, recounting the events that led him here.

I just wanted to go home, he thought. Just survive the jungle and make it back home. But now…

He shook his head as he knocked the ash off his cigarette, pinching the end of the butt and slipping it into his jacket pocket. His head snapped around at the sound of a child’s scream, but then he relaxed and smiled when it turned out to be a sound of excitement.

Continuing to watch the group of children chasing one another, he absently reached into his pocket for another cigarette, lighting it and sliding the matches — used and unused — back into his pocket.

As he took a drag, his mind returned to his contemplations.

I had a good life. There were ups and downs but it was mostly good. I mean, it started out perfect. It was me and Nicky and Ma and Pop. Pop was my hero. He was a cop and I was so proud of him. He worked hard but he always made time for me. Time to play catch, to take me to ball games, time to teach me so many special things. He made me feel like the most important person in the world. And Ma, she loved Nicky and me like nothin’ else. Life was perfect…until it wasn’t. Until, in a hail of bullets, everything changed.

Pop was dead. Mom cried and Nicky — he didn’t know what was happenin’. Me, I was just angry. So angry that I started getting into trouble. Fightin’ in school, with the kids on the street. I didn’t know how to NOT be angry, and Ma — she didn’t know what to do. So she sent me away.

I thought she hated me. I know now that wasn’t true but then, I thought she didn’t love me, that she blamed me for Pop gettin’ killed.

But Uncle Al and Aunt Rosie, they treated me like their own kid. They loved me and tried to convince me that Ma did, too.

So I had another family, I made friends, and my life became good again. And, when I had a chance to go back to Brooklyn for a visit, I realized Ma still loved me. I still didn’t understand why I couldn’t stay but at least I knew she loved me.

Back here in California, life was everything I wanted. Me and my friends, we had fun, we had adventures, and we stayed out of trouble, mostly. I did well in school, even played on the football team.

Then, when I graduated, I joined the army. I didn’t wait to be drafted. I thought it would be good training, that it would help me get on the police force, to become a cop.

I thought I’d be sent to Germany or stay stateside. At least that’s what the recruiter told me. I never believed I’d wind up fighting in Vietnam.

But I found out differently.

I found out what evil men can do to each other and what it’s like to depend on someone else to watch your back. I found security in a group of buddies. And I found out what it’s like to be frightened every minute of every day.

I just kept tellin’ myself that if I made it through the day, I would make it home. One day at a time, every day the same thought…just survive the day and make it home.

And I managed to make it through that crazy war unharmed. I thought I’d come back and my life would be perfect. That it would all fall back into place.

But it’s all wrong. Seems it doesn’t matter where I go or what I do, I’m just…out of step. I don’t fit and I…I don’t know why.

He checked his watch; the friend he was waiting for still had a bit of time. Disposing of one cigarette and lighting another, he continued reminiscing.

When I got out, I decided to go back to New York, back to my family. I thought I could pick up my life and start something new there. I didn’t realize…

Five months earlier – New York

It was close to noon on a warm, sunny Fall day in Brooklyn. He stood on the sidewalk with a smile on his face, looking up at the three-story brownstone building. He’d spent the first ten years of his life here. He’d come back for visits a couple of times and, although he hadn’t been back in years, he had good memories of this place. There were some not-so- good ones too, but that didn’t matter. This was home!

With a little laugh, he grabbed the duffle containing all his possessions, climbed the steps, and pushed the button for the second floor apartment.

“Yes?” came the tinny voice through the speaker.

“Hey, Ma? Let me in.”

There was a pause. “Who is this? What do you want?”

He chuckled. “It’s me, Ma…David. You gonna let me in?”

He heard a gasp then, after a moment, the window on the second floor flew open and a small dark-haired women stuck her head out. “David?!?”

He looked up at the window, smiling. “Hi, Ma.”

“Oh, my goodness! David! What are you doing here?”

“I thought I’d surprise you.”

“Oh, my…well, don’t just stand there. Come in.”

He laughed. “You gotta buzz me in.”

“Oh, right.” She disappeared from the window and soon the buzzer sounded. He pushed open the door and climbed the stairs, moving to the familiar door. Suddenly, that door flew open and there she stood, all five feet of her, tears welling up in her eyes.

“Come in, come in,” she said as she grabbed his arm and pulled him into the apartment. She closed the door and immediately wrapped her arms around him, squeezing tightly. “You’re here. You’re finally here.”

Dave laughed as he returned her hug. “Yeah, Ma, I’m here.”

She stepped back, not letting go of his hands. “Let me see. Let me look at you.” She ran her hands up his arms and over his chest, trailing down to his waist. “Too skinny…you’re too skinny. Didn’t they feed you in that army?”

“Yes, Ma. They fed me, but their food wasn’t nearly as good as yours.”

She placed her hand on his face. “Well, we’ll take care of that. But…” She moved her hands to his head, pulling off his knit cap and running her hands over his nearly shaven hair. “Oh, my goodness. Your curls! They cut off all your beautiful curls!”

Grabbing her hands, he gently kissed them as he looked into her tear-filled eyes. “It’s okay, Ma. My curls’ll grow back. And you’ll feed me so I won’t be skinny anymore.” He engulfed her in his arms. “Everything is gonna be okay. I’m here and I’m gonna stay. I’m home.”

He thought he noticed a look of concern crossing her face as she pushed out of his hug.

“Well,” she said as she wiped her face, frantically looking around the living room. “There’s no place to put you in your old room. Nicky’s all grown up now and taken over the place. You’ll have to sleep on the sofa until we figure something else out.”

“The sofa is fine. Don’t worry, we’ll work it out.” He looked around the apartment. “Where is Nicky, anyway?”

“Nicky’s in school. Then he has a part-time job. At Martinelli’s Shipping. You know the place. He’ll be home for dinner around five. But what about you? Are you hungry? I can make you a sandwich. I just made a fresh pitcher of iced tea.” She looked at him expectantly.

“Iced tea and a sandwich sounds good.” He smiled at her, trying to hide his concern. If he remembered correctly, Martinelli was a big name in local mob circles. For Nicky’s sake, he hoped the shipping company was a legal business and not a front for criminal activities.

“Good.” She took him by the hand and led him to the kitchen table. “You sit here and I’ll get you something.”

Dave sat at the table, watching his mother prepare his sandwich. Finally she placed it and a glass of iced tea in front of him then sat at the table, placing her hand on his arm.

“So tell me, David. Tell me how you are.”

He told her. Not everything, though. Not about the war, that would only upset her. But he did tell her of his plans to live here, to find a job, to reclaim his home.

Then he asked her a few questions and suddenly he was getting an update on everyone and everything in the neighborhood. He sat and listened, watching her talk, taking in her voice and her smile, and he began to relax.

This is it, he thought. I’m home.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

After finishing his lunch, Dave unpacked his duffle, folding his clothes and placing them on the shelves in the living room closet. When that was finished, he pulled out his pack of cigarettes, placing one in his mouth.

“Not in the house, David,” his mother said, as she walked into the room.

“Oh, okay, Ma,” he answered. “I’ll go outside on the stoop. Hey, do you need anything at the store?”

She did and so, with list in hand, Dave walked down to the corner store, smoking his cigarette, checking out the neighborhood as he went. Things had changed since he’d last been here yet some things stayed the same. Like Angelo’s. Still the same shelves, still the same counter. Even the glass case filled with penny candy was the same, although now Dave was tall enough to see over the top.

He placed his items on the counter, asked for another pack of smokes, then paid the clerk. Now, walking back home, he looked around. Yeah, the place still looked the same. But, Dave recognized, it didn’t feel quite the same. He felt…out of place.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

A few hours later Nicky arrived home from work, surprised and thrilled to find his big brother there. The three of them sat down to dinner; Mom had made his favorite, pot roast.

Dave asked Nicky about school and his job. Nicky told him everything: about school, his job, his friends. After dinner, Rachael chased the boys outside while she cleaned up.

Dave and Nicky sat on the steps. Dave lit a cigarette, offering one to Nicky.

“No, thanks,” Nicky said, shaking his head. “I don’t smoke, not tobacco, anyway.”

“Good, don’t start,” Dave said, “It’s a really nasty habit.”

“Then why don’t you stop?”

Dave chuckled. “Some things just ain’t that easy, Nicky.” He pointed a finger at his brother. “And don’t get caught smokin’ those funny cigarettes, either.”  

Nicky laughed. “Don’t worry. I’m good.” Just then Nicky spotted a friend coming down the street. “Stevie! Yo, Stevie!” He jumped up and ran to meet him. Grabbing his arm, he led him over to the steps. “Stevie, this is my big brother, David. Davey, this is my best friend, Stevie DiNardo.”

Dave shook Stevie’s hand, sizing up his brother’s friend. He was a good looking kid, about Nicky’s height. His hair was a lighter brown, and so were his eyes. He seemed a bit shy but Dave’s first impression was that he was a good kid.

The three sat on the steps talking, telling stories and laughing until another young kid, smaller than Nicky and Stevie, with bright red hair and freckles, quietly walked by.

“Hey, Pox! Chicken Pox!” When the kid put his head down and began walking faster, Nicky jumped up and went after him, stopping the kid by dancing circles around him, laughing. “Hey, kid, you sick? You got spots all over your face!” Nicky poked his finger at the smaller kid’s face. “Wait, I think your hair is on fire!” He laughed, ruffling the kid’s hair with both his hands.

The kid tried unsuccessfully to duck around Nicky, to get away from him, but Nicky continued his tormenting until he heard his brother’s voice.

“Nicky!”

Still laughing, Nicky let the kid go and returned to the stoop to find Dave standing, his body ridged in anger.

“What the hell was that?” Dave demanded.

“What?” Nicky looked around, surprised by his brother’s anger. “That?” He pointed back over his shoulder at the kid who was again walking down the street. “That’s just Red Head Andy.”

Dave stepped up to Nicky, getting right in his face. “Don’t every let me catch you bullying anybody…ANYBODY…like that again! Do you understand?”

“What? I didn’t hit him or nothin’. I was just havin’ a little fun.”

“Fun? You think it’s fun to torment a kid who’s smaller than you? Weaker than you? You think he thinks it’s funny, havin’ you pokin’ in his face, pullin’ at his hair?”

“Well…”

“Ya know, it don’t take any kind of balls to pick on somebody weaker than you. That’s just being a bully and a bully is the worst kind of coward!”

“I didn’t mean nothin’ by it. Everybody does it.”

“That doesn’t make it right, Nicky.”

Dave turned back to the steps and sat down, quietly lighting another cigarette. Nicky moved over to stand next to Stevie.

“Put yourself in his place, Nicky,“ Dave said quietly, the anger gone from his voice. “You’re just walkin’ down the street, mindin’ your own business and people start teasin’ you, shoutin’ at you, poking you. Just for a laugh. You wouldn’t think it was funny, would you?”

“Well, no, but…”

“And everybody does it, you say?”

Nick slowly nodded.

“Don’t you think he’s got enough trouble in his life without you pilin’ on top of it?”

“What do you want, Davey? You want I should be his friend?”

“I’m not sayin’ you have to be his friend, Nicky. But you don’t have to be his enemy, either. He’s another human being. He’s small and weaker than you. We’re supposed to look out for people like that, to protect those who can’t protect themselves. That’s what this country is all about, Nicky. That’s what this family has always been about. Protecting those who can’t protect themselves.”

Dave took another drag of his cigarette and slowly let out the smoke, his anger bleeding off with it.

“Don’t ever be a bully, Nicky. Like I said, a bully is just the worst kind of coward.” He reached up and patted Nicky on the shoulder. “And that just ain’t my little brother. Okay?” Dave smiled as Nicky shyly nodded his head.

Stevie, who had been quietly standing next to Nicky, finally spoke. “I never thought of it that way, Davey. About how it would feel to be him. Where’d you learn about that? Did they teach ya that in the Army?”

Dave stood. “No, Stevie. I learned that from my father.” He watched as Nicky’s head snapped up, meeting his eyes. A moment of thought and a slight nod of acknowledgement told Dave that he understood.

With that, Dave crushed out his cigarette and, as always, placed the butt in his pocket. “It’s been a long day, guys. I’m headin’ in.” With a nod and a wave, Dave reentered the house, leaving the younger men standing on the sidewalk.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

The days that followed fell into a pattern. Dave would start out helping his mother with her chores, like cleaning the apartment or going food shopping. Then he’d spend time walking the neighborhood, looking up old friends, checking out employment opportunities. After dinner, he and Nicky, and usually Stevie, would spend the evenings together. Sometimes they’d head down to the pool hall to shoot a few games; sometimes they’d walk around, with Nicky pointing out people of interest. Sometimes they’d just sit on the front stoop and talk. On occasion, Dave would spring for a six-pack and share it.

This night, Dave sat outside by himself. Nicky received a phone call right after dinner and said he needed to go somewhere. Now Dave was awaiting his return. As he lit yet another cigarette, Nicky — followed closely by Stevie — came jogging up.

“Davey! Hey, Davey! How’d you like to make fifty bucks?”

Dave looked up at Nicky, who was all smiles and out of breath. “And what would I have to do for the fifty bucks?” he asked cautiously.

“Help me and Stevie load a truck.” At Dave’s questioning look, Nicky continued. “Look, my boss, Paulie, he’s the manager down at Martinelli’s where I work. He’s got a truck comin’ in from cross country later tonight. The load has to be transferred to a different truck and be ready for local delivery for tomorrow morning. So he said he’d pay me and Stevie fifty bucks apiece if we’d work tonight and move the load. I asked if I could bring a third guy and he said sure.”

When Dave didn’t readily agree, Nicky tried to reassure him. “C’mon, Davey. It’ll be easy. This is what Stevie and me do every day, movin’ goods from one truck to another. It’s easy money.”

“What’s in the shipment?” Dave asked, watching Nicky and Stevie. If Martinelli’s was mob connected, as he suspected, he wanted to see if Nicky knew anything about it.

“I don’t know.” Nicky started to sound exasperated. “Stevie and me, we never know what’s in the trucks. We just have to load ‘em and unload ‘em.”

“Where do we have to go? The warehouse?”

“No. This truck is comin’ in down by the docks.” Nicky looked at his watch. “Paulie said we gotta be there by ten. C’mon, Davey. It’ll be easy.”

Dave didn’t really want to get involved with something he thought might be illegal but he didn’t want Nicky and Stevie getting caught up in anything, either.

“Okay,” he said, grinding out his cigarette and sticking the butt in his pocket before standing. “Let’s go.”

As much as he didn’t want to do this, he had to go along just to be sure Nicky and Stevie stayed out of trouble.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

They arrived at the docks just before 10 PM. A truck was parked in the alley next to the shipping company’s warehouse, its back doors open wide, showing the empty cargo compartment. They walked into the alley and were met by Nicky’s boss, Paulie DiAngelo, and another man who was introduced simply as “Artie”.

Dave had never met either man before, although he knew that Paulie was the manager at the shipping company where Nicky worked. But  everything about both men just screamed ‘mob’ in Dave’s mind. If he wasn’t on alert before, he was now. He just wanted to get this over with and get Nicky, Stevie, and himself, out of there.

After a few minutes, the sound of shifting gears caused everyone to turn to watch a large eighteen-wheeler turn into the alley and pull up right next to the empty truck.

As soon as the truck came to a stop, Artie was throwing open both back doors. “Alright,” he shouted. “I need half the load in here packed securely into this truck over here. Then Paulie will move it out and I’ll bring in a second truck. Then the other half of this load gets packed in there. Any questions?”

All three shook their heads.

“Okay, let’s get a move on!”

There was a moment of discussion then Nicky jumped up into the back of the eighteen-wheeler, while Stevie entered the empty truck. Within moments, they had an assembly line going, with Nicky handing the unlabeled cartons to Dave and Dave walking them over to Stevie.

About a half an hour later, with the first truck almost full, the sounds of cars screeching to a halt at the mouth of the alley had everyone stopping. Dave immediately recognized the police, even before they heard shouts of “Freeze!” and “Hands up!”

He immediately yelled for his brother and his friend. “Nicky! Stevie! Get under the truck!” As the two kids jumped to the ground, Dave grabbed them both, pushing them under the back of the larger truck. Crawling behind them, he shouted, “Move! Get out the other end! GO!”

As the police swarmed the alley, guns drawn, shouting orders, Dave, Nicky, and Stevie crawled quickly but cautiously to the front of the truck.

With the police concentrating on Paulie and Artie and the goods in the back of the trucks, Dave saw their opportunity. “Run!” he told the others in a loud whisper, pushing them out from under the front of the truck.

As they cleared the end of the alley, all three turned and ran as fast as they could, cutting through other alleys and around corners, putting as much distance between themselves and those trucks as they could.

Finally, they stopped. Dave leaned against a building while Nicky and Stevie bent over, hands on knees, gasping for breath. Dave looked around and recognized that they were down the street from Stevie’s house and a block away from his mother’s.

Standing up, he grabbed Nicky and Stevie by the shoulders, looking them both in the eye. “Listen to me!” When both kids met his eyes, he continued. “Stevie, I want you to go straight home. Don’t run, just walk calmly but don’t stop to talk to anyone. Understand?”

Stevie nodded.

Dave continued. “Tomorrow, I want both of you to go to school, just like normal. If anyone asks, you don’t know nothin’ about what went down tonight, okay?” Both kids nodded. “After school, I’ll meet you both outside and we’ll walk over to the shipping company together, just like you’re reporting to work like normal. Do you understand?”

Again, both kids nodded. Then Nicky asked, “What will we do then, Davey?”

Dave looked around, scanning the area, then turned back to his brother. “It looked like the cops nabbed both Paulie and Artie. By the time you get to work, they’ll probably be out on bail. If they’re not, the warehouse may not even be open. But, if it is, we go in actin’ like we’re just happy that we got away.  Okay?”

Both kids nodded again, their breathing finally returning to normal.

“But it’s really important that you don’t say anything…ANYTHING!”

“We won’t,” Nicky assured him. “I promise, Davey. We won’t say anything.”

“Won’t say nothing, Davey. Promise,” Stevie added.

Dave looked at both of them, trying to determine if they would really do as he said. Knowing there was nothing else he could do, he draped his arm around his brother’s shoulder.

“Okay, Stevie. Get on home. We’ll stay here and watch until you get in.” Stevie nodded and started towards his house. “And don’t forget what I said.”

Dave and Nicky watched as Stevie walked somewhat calmly down the street and, finally, entered his house. Then Dave turned Nicky and started walking home.

“What happened there tonight, Davey?”

“It was a police raid, Nicky. The cops seemed to think that something illegal was goin’ on. Are you sure you don’t know what was in that truck?”

“I swear, Davey. I don’t know. You saw the cartons! There wasn’t any way to tell what was in them.”

Dave agreed. “You’re right. No way to tell.”

As they got to the front of the house, Dave stopped, turning to look Nicky in the eyes. “And you don’t say anything to Ma, you hear? I don’t want her knowin’ about this.”

Nicky nodded. “I won’t say a thing. I promise.”

“Okay,” Dave said, patting Nicky on the shoulder. “Now get inside and go to bed.”

Nicky climbed the steps. Just as he opened the door, he turned back to his brother. “Davey?” When Dave looked up at him, Nicky smiled. “Thanks.” Then he went inside.

Dave sat down on the stoop and pulled a cigarette from his pocket. He didn’t know what the outcome of this would be but, there wasn’t anything else he could do right now. As he lit his cigarette, he had only one thought.

What the hell have you gotten yourself into now?

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

The next day appeared to go as smoothly as Dave had hoped. Both kids walked to school as always, this time with Dave trailing about a half a block behind them. At the end of the day, Dave was outside the school, waiting.

When first Stevie, then Nicky, appeared, the three of them headed over to Martinelli’s Shipping.

“How’d things go today?” Dave asked the boys. “Anybody talkin’ about last night?”

Stevie shook his head. “I didn’t hear anything. And nobody asked me, either.”

Nicky agreed. “Nothing, Davey. It was all quiet.”

“Good.” He wasn’t surprised that the previous night’s events weren’t the big talk at a high school but, as they got closer to the warehouse, he wasn’t so sure things would continue to be so quiet.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

As they walked up to the warehouse, things seemed to be in a bit of turmoil. When Nicky walked into the loading bay, he heard someone shouting his name.

“Nicky! Yo, Nicky.”

“Who’s that?” Dave whispered to Stevie, who still stood next to him.

“That’s Anthony, Artie’s brother. He’s one of the supervisors.” Stevie then moved to join Nicky in the loading bay.

“Hey, Anthony,” Nicky looked around as the man came up to them. “Are Paulie and Artie here?”

“No. They had some other things to take care of.” Anthony looked them both over, glancing behind them to nod at Dave. “You boys ran into a little excitement at the warehouse last night, huh?” 

“Yeah,” Nicky chuckled nervously. “I don’t really know what went down ‘cus we high-tailed it out of there as fast as we could.”

Anthony smiled at them. “That was quick thinking. But don’t worry about it, boys. It was just a little… miscommunication.” He placed a hand on each boy’s shoulder and continued. “Both of you, go home. We got nothin’ for you to do here today!”

Nicky nodded and both he and Stevie left the bay, meeting up with Dave again on the sidewalk.

“What do you think’s goin’ on, Davey?” Nicky asked, glancing around.

“I think, with the shipment taken and Paulie and Artie not around, Anthony’s just trying to keep the place movin’. Probably the last thing he wants to do now is have to look after you two.”

“So now what do we do?” Stevie asked

“We do what the man said.” Dave smiled. “We go home.”

The three of them headed down the street and, just as they reached the corner, a black Cadillac pulled in front of them, cutting across their path. Dave watched as the driver’s side back and the passenger-side front doors both opened, a large brute of a man climbing out of each.

The man who’d gotten out of the front seat, whom Dave tagged as “Goon #1”, opened the rear passenger door.

“Get in.” he said, his tone, and the presence of the other man, whom Dave tagged as “Goon #2”, let them know that they really didn’t have a choice.

Dave guided Stevie, then Nicky into the back seat, climbing in after them. Goon #2 climbed back in, squeezing the four of them into the back. Goon #1 got back into the front seat and the car moved down the street.

“What’s goin’ on?” Dave asked. “Where are we goin’?”

“Somebody’s got a few questions for you,” Goon #1 replied, without turning to face them.

Dave looked over to Nicky and Stevie, signaling for them to stay calm and quiet. He hoped questions were all this somebody had planned.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

They were ushered into an office, dark except for a small lamp on the desk and another beside the door. Seated at the desk was a man, dressed in an expensive suit, his hair neatly combed back.

Dave realized they were in the presence of none other than Angelo Martinelli.

Goon #2 lined the three young men up in front of the desk while Goon #1 stood with his back to the door.

Not getting’ out that way, Dave thought. He stood quietly while Nicky and Stevie fidgeted.

Mr. Martinelli stared, then after a few minutes, spoke. “Tell me what happened last night.”

Nicky glanced at Dave, who nodded, so Nicky cleared his throat and told Martinelli exactly what had happened. Finally, he concluded, “…So we ran until we were sure no one was after us. Then my brother told us to go home like nothin’ was happenin’. So we did.”

“Right,” added Stevie. “That’s what we did.”

Martinelli stared at the three of them long enough to make Nicky and Stevie squirm. Finally, he spoke. “So, what you’re telling me is that, as soon as the cops showed up, you three ran like cowards and let them arrest Paulie and Artie and confiscate my goods? Do you know how much that shipment was worth? And how did the cops know we would be there? Did one of you talk, spill the beans? Well?”

Nicky and Stevie both turned to Dave, their faces drained of color. He had to jump in. “Now, wait a minute, Mr. Martinelli.” He stepped forward, gesturing for Nicky and Stevie to stay back, that he’d handle this. Martinelli’s attention was now fully on him. “Think about what you’re sayin’, Mr. Martinelli. How could any of us talk to the cops? We didn’t know what was in the shipment. We still don’t. And we didn’t even know where we were going until about an hour before we got there. So there wasn’t any time for someone to go talkin’ to the cops. Besides, there’s no upside for these guys to talk.”

Martinelli raised his eyebrows in question.

“Look, these guys here, they’re both under eighteen. If they get picked up, the worst they get is a stint in juvey and nothin’ on their record when they turn eighteen. But they become useless to you.”

“Yeah, and why’s that?”

“Well, if they get picked up, like I said, they get maybe a few months. But now the cops think they’re tied to your…enterprise. So they figure, being kids, they can push ‘em, get them to talk, maybe get some information on you. These kids don’t know anythin’ but the cops won’t believe that. So they ride them, making their lives miserable. You can’t use them anymore, they’re too hot. And they’re now under the cop’s thumb forever. Like I said, no upside. So, at the first sign of trouble, I made sure they got outta there.”

Dave saw Martinelli nod slightly, seeing the logic of his statement.

“And as far as your shipment? These guys weren’t responsible for that. Artie and Paulie, they were in charge and they should be responsible for your shipment. Not these kids.”

Martinelli stared at him for a few minutes, occasionally glancing over at Nicky and Stevie. “Are you saying that Artie or Paulie talked?”

“No, sir.” Dave assured him. “I’m not sayin’ anything like that. I don’t know Artie or Paulie. I just know that they were in charge.”

Martinelli nodded. “You sound like a smart young man. What’s your name?”

Before Dave could respond, a voice came from the darkness behind the desk.

“Starsky. David Starsky.”

Dave recognized this voice, a voice from his past. He watched as an older man stepped into the light.

“Little Davey Starsky,” the man said with a smile.

“Joe,” Dave said with a nod, acknowledging Joe Durniak.

“You know, Angelo, there was a time when this young man used to call me ‘Uncle Joey’. Now, now he’s all grown up and, suddenly, I’m just ‘Joe’.” He came around and leaned on the front of the desk, looking Dave over. “So, David. You’re lookin’ good. Heard you were in the Army.”

Dave nodded.

“When did ya get out?”

“Just a few weeks ago. I thought I’d come back to New York, visit the family.”

“And how’s your mother doin’? She okay?”

“Ma is doing just fine, Joe.”

“So what are you gonna be doin’ here in New York?”

“I’m not sure yet. I’m lookin’ around for opportunities, ya know.”

Joe nodded. Without taking his eyes off Dave’s face, he spoke to Martinelli. “He’s right. These kids, they didn’t do anything wrong. They’re good kids.” Raising his voice slightly, he addressed Goon #1 and #2. “Go find Artie and Paulie and bring them here. I think we need to have a discussion.”

Both men nodded as Joe continued, scanning the faces of all three young men, then again facing Dave. “How much did Paulie say he’d pay you for last night?”

Dave said nothing and finally Nicky cleared his throat. “Uh, fifty dollars, sir,” he replied nervously. “Fifty bucks apiece.”

“Did you get paid up front?”

“No, sir.”

Still watching Dave, Joe reached into his pocket and pulled out a wad of cash and peeled off six fifty dollar bills. He started to hand the money to Dave but paused then handed the cash to Nicky. A slight nod from Dave told Joe a lot about the young man in front of him.

“Put these kids back where you found them. Unharmed, understand?”

Dual “yes, sirs” were the response as Goon #1 opened the door and the three young men turned to leave. They all stopped when Joe spoke again.

“David.”

Dave turned to face the older man.

“When you get yourself settled, come see me. I think we could explore some of those ‘opportunities’ you were talkin’ about.”

Dave looked at Joe for a moment, nodded, then turned and ushered Nicky and Stevie out the door.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

There was no sleep for him that night. Realizations and recriminations whirled around his head. Finally, just before dawn, after hours of staring at the ceiling, he gave up. Tossing aside his blanket, he pulled on his jeans and walked over to the window, lighting a cigarette.

I thought it would be easy. He sighed as he stared out the window, not really seeing the pre-dawn bustle on the street below. I thought I could come back here and, somehow, I would fit in, that there’d be a place for me.

He snorted as he took a drag of his cigarette. Yeah, there’s a place for me, all right. Right in the middle of Joe Durniak’s organization. Wouldn’t that just make Pop proud? He sighed again and took another drag.

I thought this was home…but it’s not. I don’t belong here. And now I’m gonna break Ma’s heart. How do I tell her?

“David?”

He turned to find his mother standing in the doorway of the living room, her face full of concern. He saw her eyes flicker to the cigarette in his hand. Her unspoken admonishment, “Not in the house, David,” echoed through his mind.

“Oh, sorry, Ma,” he apologized as he stubbed out and pocketed the cigarette.

She took a step towards him then stopped. “What’s wrong, David? What’s the matter?”

Unable to meet her eyes, he ran his hand along the windowsill, brushing off the ash. “I…I made a decision, Ma.”

“I thought as much.”

He looked up at her, surprised to see not sadness or hurt but resignation on her face.

“Come into the kitchen.” She turned to lead the way. “We’ll have coffee and we’ll talk. And, David…” she paused, looking back at him, “you’re a grown man. Put a shirt on.”

Dave grabbed his t-shirt and pulled it over his head as he followed his mother into the kitchen.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

He didn’t know how long he’d sat there, tied up in his own thoughts, when his mother placed the coffee in front of him. He wrapped his hands around the cup.

She ran a loving hand over his head and down the side of his face as she sat down. “Tell me.”

He looked up, meeting her eyes and was surprised. He knew that his mother loved him but the love that he saw in her eyes at that moment amazed him. And, along with the love, he saw strength; a strength he never knew existed.

He studied her face, for the first time really looking at her. Not through the eyes of a child but from his adult perspective. He didn’t see a frail, helpless woman who needed his protection. What he saw was a woman who had suffered much in life and had survived it all. A woman with an inner strength and resolve. Suddenly, he was certain that she would understand what he was dealing with.

He reached out and took her hands in his and sighed. “I don’t know what I’m looking for, Ma. When I got discharged, I thought I just wanted to go home. Not to Uncle Al and Aunt Rosie but here, where I belonged. I thought I could come back and take back my life…with you and Nicky, ya know? I thought I’d find old friends, get a job, create a new life.”

“But it didn’t turn out that way, did it, sweetheart?”

He shook his head. “All the friends I knew…they’re either dead or in jail. Or they’re doing…work…that I don’t want to get involved with.” He let out a heavy sigh. “I thought I would fit right in but, Ma, I don’t belong here.” He looked up at her, meeting her eyes, pleading.

“You left here as a child, David, and you came back as a man, with dreams and plans. But, while you were gone, everyone here grew up and changed on you.” She gazed at him for a moment before she continued.

“When you were a little boy, you would go down to the corner every day to wait for your father to come home. You would meet him at the corner and the two of you would walk home, hand in hand. He would tell you about his day and you would tell him about yours. That was your special time, just you and him. He lived for those moments, David, just as you did. ‘He’s gonna be something special someday, Rachael,’ he would say. He loved you so much and was so proud of you.”

She was silent for a moment before she continued. “The day he was killed, you’d walked down to the corner to wait, just like every other day. I was putting dinner on the table when I heard the shots.”

He looked up and she met his eyes. “You didn’t know that I heard the shots, did you?”

Dave shook his head.

She nodded. “I heard the shots and my first thought was, Please, God, not David, too!” She looked up at him. “You see, I knew what he’d been dealing with on the job. We’d talked about it, about what he was working on, about how to protect you and Nicky, you know? So, when I heard the shots, I knew they’d gotten him, that he was dead. I just knew it in my heart. But I was so frightened that they had gotten you, too. Do you remember that day, David?”

He nodded. “Yeah, Ma. I’ll never forget that day. The shots, the blood. Then the people and police. I just wanted to get to Pop and everybody was keeping me away. Then you were there and you…you picked me up and took me home.”

Rachael squeezed his hand in hers. “For the first few weeks after that, you were quiet. So quiet. Then, you were just angry. Such a little boy with so much anger. You were getting into fights and other trouble. And so very protective of Nicky. But I wasn’t worried about Nicky. I was worried about you.

“Then Joe Durniak came by and offered to help. You see, he and your father grew up together but their lives went in different directions. But even though they were on different sides, they both respected each other. He paid for your father’s funeral, did you know that?”

“No, Ma, I didn’t.”

Rachael nodded. “He knew I couldn’t afford much and he said Mike Starsky deserved the best. And I think he was trying to make a point to the other wise guys out there. But then, almost a year later, he was here again, offering to take you under his wing, to help straighten you out and keep you safe.”

She took a sip of her now cold coffee then took David’s hands again. “You’re a smart boy, David, and I knew what Joe would do. He would keep you by his side, he would protect you the best way he could, by bringing you up in his business, making you his right hand. And you’d be good at it, David, at what he does. But I know it would kill all the good inside you. And I knew it was everything your father was trying to protect you from. So it was that day I made the hardest decision I ever had to make in my life. I knew I had to send you away.”

They were both silent for a moment, lost in their memories, before she spoke again.

“You didn’t understand why I was sending you away. You hated me for a long time.” She halted Dave’s protest with a smile. “It’s true, David and it’s okay. I knew you couldn’t understand. And I knew I couldn’t explain it to you…not then.”

She reached up and placed her hand along the side of his face. “But now, you’re all grown up and you’ve come back to me. Now you will understand. It was dangerous for you here, David. There were dangers I couldn’t protect you from. And those dangers still exist. There are men with long memories who remember the little boy who saw the killing, who could possible identify the shooter. And there are men who would protect you the best way they know how, by taking you into their life. All these years later, those dangers are still here.”

Rachael took a deep breath then let out a sigh. “When you showed up a few weeks ago, I was so happy. But when you said you planned on staying, the old fears, they all came back. I knew you shouldn’t stay but you, you’re an adult now and I had to let you make your own decisions. So I’ve been waiting, hoping you’d make the right decision. And, it appears you have.”

Dave stared at her for a moment then, taking her face in his hands, gently kissed her forehead, her nose then her lips. Sitting back in the chair, he studied her for a moment. “And if I decided to stay, you would have let me, wouldn’t you?”

He watched her nod.

“And you would have been worried the whole time.”

She nodded again.

Dave reached out and took her hands once more. “And here I was worried about disappointing you.”

“You could never disappoint me, David. Never.”

Dave smiled and patted her hands. “I thought this was my place, my home, where I belonged. But I know now that it’s not. I don’t belong here, not anymore. The question is, where do I belong?”

“You’ll find your place, David. It’s out there; I know it is. You just have to look for it.”

“And how do I know when I find it, Ma? How do I know?”

Rachael reached out and placed her hand over Dave’s heart. “You’ll know it in here. When you find that place, where you fit, where you belong, you’ll know it in your heart. You’ll feel it in your very soul.”

Dave took her hand from his chest and placed a kiss in her palm. “But what about you, Ma? What about Nicky? Who’ll protect Nicky?”

“Don’t you worry about Nicky, David. Nicky will be fine.” Seeing the surprised look on Dave’s face, she smiled. “Nicky is a good kid, David. But he’s not smart, not like you. Joe looks out for him. And, if he does get into trouble, it will be little things, nothing big, nothing important. And that’s okay. You…you have to look out for yourself. Let me take care of Nicky.”

Dave stood up and pulled his mother into his arms. “I love you so much, Ma. Never forget that.”

“And I love you, too. Don’t you ever forget that.”

Within the week, he was on a plane, heading back to LA.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

 “Joey! Leave your sister alone!”

The mother’s shout brought Dave’s thoughts back to the present. With a smile at the antics of little boys, he put out his cigarette, the butt going into his jacket pocket.

He looked at his watch again, checking the time.

Damn it, he thought when he realized the time on his watch hadn’t changed since he last looked. One of these days, I’m gonna get a good watch, a really good watch, the Rolls Royce of watches. He shook his wrist, trying to get the watch working again. Piece of crap!

With a sigh, he looked around. Not seeing his friend, he pulled another cigarette from his jacket and returned to his thoughts.

Uncle Al and Aunt Rosie were really happy to see me when I got back. Picked me up at the airport, took me back home, even had my old room ready and waiting.

His eyes did a slow scan of the area again.

They’ve been really good to me, Uncle Al and Aunt Rosie. Took me in when I was ten, put up with me through all that ‘teen years’ shit. But I was startin’ to go crazy and I just didn’t know who to talk to…

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Southern California, October, 1967

He’d been back in Los Angeles, at his uncle and aunt’s house, the place that had been his home, for two days. His trip to New York had not turned out the way he’d planned. His visit with Ma and Nicky had been great. But his search for a place to belong had failed. Now, standing outside on the back porch, smoking a cigarette, he felt restless and unsettled.

He glanced over to the next house and spotted John sitting on his back porch and he smiled. This was the first he’d seen John since his return.

John Blaine was a police officer, a detective, and had taken the then cocky, ten-year-old New York transplant under his wing. John had been like a second father to him, closer than even his Uncle Al. Seeing him now brought a smile to Dave’s face.

“John!” he shouted, waving his arm.

John saw him and stood up. “David? C’mon over here!”

He stubbed out his cigarette and stuck the butt in his pocket as he jumped off the porch. He hopped the fence that separated the two houses and climbed the porch steps. Now he stood in front of John, hands stuck in his pockets, suddenly nervous. “Hey, John.”

“Hey, yourself,” John replied, pulling him into a bear hug. After a moment, John stepped back, still holding on to Dave’s arms. “Let me look at you,” he said as he ran his eyes over his body. John laughed as he pulled the ever-present knit cap from Dave’s head, running his hand over the barely-there hair. “You’re looking good, David. Really good.” John laughed as Dave smiled. “Hey, how about a beer?”

“That…that would be great.” Dave stuttered around his face-splitting smile. As John went into the house, Dave bounced on his toes, feeling lighter and happier than he’d felt in ages.

John returned and handed a bottle to Dave, then sat on the porch steps. Dave sat down next to him and took a drink.

“So, David…how are you?” John’s eyes searched his and Dave felt like the man was seeing into his soul. He knew he couldn’t hold back the truth if he tried.

“I’m good, John. Really.” He saw the doubt in John’s eyes. “It’s just…”

John put his arm around Dave’s shoulder. “Talk to me, son. Tell me what’s on your mind.”

So Dave did just that.

Now, an hour, four cigarettes and two bottles of beer later, David ran out of words. He pulled another cigarette from his jacket pocket and lit it, waiting for John’s response to his tale.

“You’re searching, David. You’re looking for your place.”

“I know,” Dave replied, exasperated. “But why can’t I find it? Not here, not in New York. I don’t understand it, John. It’s like…like everything’s changed.”

John slowly shook his head. “Everything hasn’t changed, David. As a matter of fact, everything is pretty much the same. It’s you that has changed.”

Dave looked hard at John, surprised by his comment. “What? What do you mean?”

“Look at you, David. You left New York a ten-year-old boy, full of hurt and anger. You left here an eighteen-year-old young man, full of dreams. Now…you’re not that little boy anymore. And you’re not that naïve young man, either.

“You’ve changed. You’ve been to war. You’ve seen things, and probably done things, that no person should have to see or do. You’ve experienced the worst of man’s nature, the futility of war. Now you come back here and wonder why things don’t feel the same?”

“Yeah,” Dave responded slowly. “How did you know?”

“I felt the same way when I returned from Korea.”

“Korea? I didn’t know you were over there! Why don’t I know this about you?”

“Do you want to discuss your time in ‘Nam with anyone?”

Dave shook his head.

“Neither did I,” John continued. “I didn’t want to talk about it. I didn’t even want to remember it. But it changed me, changed who I was. And it took me a while to figure out what I was going to do and who I was going to be.” He patted Dave on the back. “And you, David, you have to give yourself the chance to do the same thing. You have to accept the fact that your old life is over. Now you have to decide what you’re going to do with the rest of this new one.”

“Yeah.” Dave chuckled. “I’m just not sure I’ll know it when I see it, ya know?” At John’s smile, he continued. “Ma says I’ll know…when I find my place, where I belong. She says I’ll know it in my heart and in my soul.”

“I never met your mother, David. But I think I love her.”

Both men laughed then sat quietly for a few minutes, Dave finishing his cigarette and sticking the butt into his jacket pocket. “And how do I explain this to Uncle Al and Aunt Rosie? How do I tell them that the home they’ve given me all these years just doesn’t fit me anymore?”

“Al will understand,” John assured him. When Dave looked up, he smiled. “World War Two.”

Dave nodded. He remembered hearing that his Uncle Al had been in that war but it just hadn’t clicked until now.

“Now Rosie, she probably won’t understand. She’ll cry.” John smiled. “But she loves you more than life itself, so she’ll be fine.” They sat in silence for a few minutes before John continued, asking, “So, do you have any idea what you want to do, where you’ll start looking?”

“Yeah,” Dave said slowly. “Yeah, I think I know what I want to do first.” He turned to sit with his back against the post, facing John, then continued. “There was this guy in my unit, Francisco Del la Cruz. All the guys called him ‘Chico’ but to me, he was always ‘Frankie’.“

He paused in thought, turning the silver ring on his left pinkie, then continued. “Frankie was a great kid. He was my best friend, John. We looked out for each other, watched each other’s backs. And he was funny, always playing jokes. He was never mean or nothin’. Just always keepin’ the guys in stitches, ya know?”

John nodded, encouraging him to continue.

“Now Frankie and his brothers, they grew up in East LA. His family came in from Mexico just before he was born. They became citizens and were proud to be called Americans. Then his father was killed in a construction accident and, a month later, Frankie got his notice. As soon as Frankie left, his mother took his brothers and moved back to Mexico, where she had family. He said she didn’t want the Army to take any more of her sons.” Dave was quiet for a few minutes, just turning the ring, before John spoke.

“He didn’t come back, did he?”

Dave slowly shook his head. “We were out on patrol. Sniper got him. Bullet right to the head. He never knew what hit him.”

“Was that his ring?” John asked.

“Yeah. His mother gave it to him. I…I just needed something to remember.” Dave pulled out another cigarette and lit it before he continued. “I brought back some of his things, ya know. The things the Army wouldn’t think of returning to his family. I think I’d like to go down there and return them myself. I think Frankie would want me to do that.”

John stood, signaling that their conversation was coming to a close. He waited until Dave stood before he spoke. “I think Frankie would appreciate that, David.” He watched as Dave hung his head, as if embarrassed. He placed a hand on Dave’s shoulder. “You’re a good man, David. And a good friend. You go down to Mexico and do what you have to do. And while you’re traveling, you look around, think about what you want to do. And if you find it, great! And if you don’t, you just come back here and we’ll see, Al and I, if we can help you find it.”

Dave nodded then held out his hand for John to shake. John took his hand then pulled him into another hug. They parted, John watching as Dave walked slowly back to his uncle’s house.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

After his discussion with John, he talked to his aunt and uncle, trying to explain where his mind was and what his plans were. John had been right, Uncle Al understood. Aunt Rosie cried but just a little. Then she made him promise to write at least once a week.

As the discussion ended, Al stood to face Dave, placing his hands on the younger man’s shoulders. “I hope you find what you’re looking for, boy. And if you don’t, you come back here and we’ll figure it out together, okay?” As Dave nodded, Al pulled him into a firm hug. “You’re a good boy, David. I would be proud to call you my son.”

A few more tears and hugs, then Dave started making plans.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Mexico, November, 1967

It took a few trains and a couple of buses but, as the month turned to November, he was in Guadalajara, Mexico.

He spent a few days enjoying the sights and sounds of the city, the mariachi music and, of course, the tequila. And there may have been one or two lovely ladies that were happy to welcome the young foreigner.

But he realized that he was only delaying the inevitable so he set out to find Frankie’s family.

He knew that they lived in a small town north of the city and, after a couple of hours walking, found it with relative ease. It took him a little while to locate the home but, when he did, he knocked on the door and told the woman who answered who he was, that he’d been a friend of Frankie’s.

He was nervous and unsure of his welcome but those feeling were quickly dismissed when he was pulled into a fierce hug, engulfed in tears and laughter, as if he were Frankie himself returning.

He spent some time alone with Frankie’s mother, Maria, telling her of Frankie’s friendship, his days in camp and, eventually, his death. He gave her the mementoes that he’d carried home from Southeast Asia. She quietly asked questions and cried silent tears.

She recognized the ring on Dave’s finger and when he offered to return it to her, she patted his hand, telling him that Frankie would want him to have it, that the ring was right where it belonged. She thanked him for bringing her son’s things home and for being Frankie’s friend. He found himself drained by the experience and accepted her offer of a place to wash up and rest.

By evening, the quiet house had turned into a party. People had been arriving all day, everyone bringing various foods and drinks, all coming to welcome ‘Frankie’s friend’. It was almost a fiesta.

Surrounded by Frankie’s mother and brothers, along with various aunts, uncles, and cousins, he answered their questions and told tales of his and Frankie’s exploits, some only slightly exaggerated.

He spent the next few days working with the uncles in the fields, playing with the brothers and cousins but, by the end of the week, he knew he couldn’t stay. The family treated him as one of their own but the memories of Frankie and his time in Vietnam, memories that he’d been trying so hard to forget, stayed forefront in his mind. They began to turn his dreams into nightmares again and he knew it would only get worse if he stayed.

So he decided he would set off on his next adventure.

On his plane trip from New York to Los Angeles he’d read an article in Time magazine about the Huichol Indians and was mesmerized by their amazing artwork. While in Guadalajara, he heard of a Huichol village about two days walk east of the city. He decided that he would visit and, hopefully, get to know the people. Frankie’s family sent him on his way with love, loaded down with more food and drink then he thought he would need.

Now, two days into his trek through the jungle, he was reconsidering his decision. As he hacked his way through the undergrowth, he was on high alert, his eyes continually scanning the trees. His memories of hidden snipers and of buried explosives kept him vigilant. He was constantly on watch for snakes and spiders, animals that, in Vietnam, could kill you in seconds. And the heat. My god, the heat. He’d somehow forgotten the smothering heat and the oppressive humidity of the jungle.

Pausing for a moment, he wiped the sweat from his face.

“God, I hate the jungle,” he said aloud. He dropped his duffle to the ground then lowered his shaking body down to sit on it, taking a sip of water from his canteen. “What the hell was I thinking?”

He shivered as a sudden chill swept over his body. He started feeling the chill last night, after he’d bunked down in a clearing. All day his body ached and seemed to alternate between the chill and the heat. There were moments when he swore he saw things or people in the trees, only to find that nothing was there. He felt exhausted, drained of energy, more than he expected the trek warranted.

Maybe I just need a little rest, he thought.

From his seat atop the duffle, he slid to the ground, dropping his canteen. In seconds his awareness of the jungle and all the threats it contained were lost in unconsciousness.

His next awareness was of a voice, quiet murmurs, and coolness moving across his face. He tried but failed to make out the words as his consciousness faded away. His mind returned to nightmares of being surrounded by jungle, of being attacked by animals and by enemies in the trees. When he thought he’d lose his mind from the fear, the torments faded, returning again to the cool on his face.

He struggled to open his eyes. His blurred vision slowly focused in on the face of a young boy who was wiping a damp rag over his face. They locked gazes for a second then the boy dropped the rag and ran. He watched the boy leave through a covered doorway then spent an unknown length of time cataloging his surroundings.

He was inside somewhere, maybe a tent or a hut, lying on a pallet on the floor. The darkness was almost complete, the only light filtering in around the edges of the cloth that covered the doorway. Suddenly, the cloth was moved aside and light filled the room. He clamped his eyes shut at the blinding brightness.

He felt the cool rag pressed once again to his face and another voice, lightly accented but different from the first, spoke softly.

“Well, Javi tells me you are back with the living, my friend. Is that true?”

He slowly opened his eyes and saw the young boy, a huge smile on his face, kneeling on his left. On his right was a young man, maybe around his own age, also smiling at him. The young man reached away then came back with a cup, placing it to his lips. “This is just water, my friend. Drink a little. It will help.”

He sipped at the water, relishing the feel of the cool smoothness sliding down his dry throat. After a few sips the cup was taken away.

“Now…my name is Miguel and this,” pointing to the young boy, “this is Javi. You are in the village of the Huichol Indians. Javi found you three days ago, lying in the jungle. The men of the village brought you back here. You have been fighting the fever ever since.”

He tried to speak, choking out the first few words. “What…what’s wrong with me?” he finally managed to ask.

He heard Javi laugh, saying what sounded like “pequeno bebe” as he moved away. Miguel chuckled and smiled at Dave. “As I said, you have had a very high fever, a small rash on your body and…other issues. I do not know what the sickness is really called. Here it is just known as The Fever but everyone who lives here gets it. But that usually happens when they are babies.”

Pequeno bebe?” he managed to ask.

“It means little baby.”

He smiled as Miguel continued. “But now your rash has disappeared, your other issues have ceased to be a problem. We have just been waiting for you to wake up.”

“Well,” he whispered. “It seems that I’ve managed to do that.”

“Yes, yes, you have.” Miguel smiled and nodded. “And now that you have, I will tell you this…go back to sleep. We will talk more when you wake in a while.”

He closed his eyes and fell into a relaxing slumber, free from the nightmares of the jungle.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

On his next awakening, Javi and Miguel were again at his side. There was more cool water and, this time, warm broth. After eating and a little more conversation, he fell into a more restful sleep.

Over the next few days, he began to recover. The fever was gone, his strength slowly returning. His pattern of eating and sleeping was modified to include time talking with Miguel and his constant companion, Javi.

The young boy, whom Dave discovered was eight-years-old, was full of tales that sounded exciting but were totally incomprehensible to Dave. When Javi realized that Dave wasn’t understanding, he had a brilliant idea, which he had Miguel explain. Dave would teach Javi English and Javi would teach Dave Spanish. So Dave’s free waking moments became devoted to these language lessons.

Miguel, it turned out, was a university student, here with a group of students and a professor, building more permanent housing for the villagers. He spent most of his free time with Dave, telling him the history of the village and of the improvements they hoped to make.

After a week in what Dave found out was the sick house, he ventured out, moving into the building that housed the student workers. When he voiced his desire for a bath, Javi led him into the jungle.

They walked for a short distance, Javi periodically striking a tree with the large stick he carried, letting out a shout. At Dave’s question of what he was doing and why, Javi explained that it was to scare the animals away. Before Dave could question any further, they arrived at a large pond that was fed by a waterfall. The scene was picturesque.

Without a pause, Javi removed his clothes and began wading into the water.

Dave grab his arm. “We take a bath in here?” he asked cautiously, pointing to himself then at the water.

Si, bath.” Javi nodded, a smile on his face.

Dave’s mind went back to other times, other jungles and being neck deep in other bodies of water. “What about leeches? Are there leeches in there?”

Javi shook his head, clearly not understanding Dave’s nervousness. Dave looked around, trying to find something to help him explain to the boy. Searching the ground, he found a worm. He picked it up and showed it to Javi then, with the boy watching, he placed the worm on his arm and motioned as if he was trying to pull it off but it was stuck. He repeated this action a few more times, on his legs and on his chest, until Javi’s face lit up in understanding.

Sanguijuelas?” he shouted. He picked up a small stick and used it to mimic Dave’s motions, showing that he understood.

“Yeah, leeches.” Dave then pointed to the water, his motion asking the question again.

“No,” he said, shaking his head. “No sanguijuelas.” With that, he dove into the water, coming up a few feet from the edge. He stood and patted his body, turning around to assure Dave that his body had not picked up any of the vile creatures that worried him.

Dave nodded then removed his clothes and cautiously moved into the pond. He tried to enjoy the refreshing feel of the water but his mind kept returning to Javi’s earlier actions to “scare the animals away.” That, and the possibility of other unknown creatures in the water made him unable to relax.

God, I hate the jungle, he thought, not for the last time.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

His days fell into a routine, waking early and working with the students in the cooler morning hours. He’d spent a few summers during his high school years working light construction and enjoyed the physical labor.

During the heat of the afternoon he wandered the village, talking with the people and watching the artisans. He was fascinated with the different works, from the beading to the pottery to the blankets and other textiles, each article with a unique design but all in the same vein, making their origins easily recognizable.

Javi was his constant companion, explaining the meanings behind the works and translating the words that Dave hadn’t been able to understand. Javi’s English had improved by leaps and bounds, causing him to become almost fluent in the language. Dave didn’t learn quite so easily and still struggled a bit.

The evenings were spent with various families, with the workers and students, eating and drinking, laughing and singing. Miguel became a good friend and talked about his days at the university and his plans to become an architect. Dave spoke of his time in New York and California and his time in Viet Nam.

And sometimes Dave was able to forget that he was surrounded by the ominous jungle. Sometimes.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

It was almost mid-day when Dave heard the commotion outside. They had completed their morning work and Dave was changing his shirt and thinking about what he could grab to eat.

He walked outside to find the village in turmoil. A crowd had gathered in the center of the clearing, surrounding something on the ground. Men were running about, shouting words that Dave didn’t understand, grabbing weapons, heading towards the jungle. Dave didn’t know what was happening but his fear seemed to build as he moved toward the crowd.

Suddenly Miguel was there in front of him, holding him back.

“What’s goin’ on? What’s happened?” Dave asked, pushing against Miguel’s hold, still trying to get to the see what was surrounded by the crowd.

Miguel continued to push back. “No, David. Don’t!”

Dave stopped and finally looked at his friend, seeing the pain and anguish in his eyes. “What happened, Miguel? Tell me.”

Miguel just looked at him for a moment, deciding. “There was an attack, my friend. By the waterfall…a jaguar…it killed…”

Suddenly, Dave’s heart was in his throat. “Who, Miguel? Who was killed?”

But the fear and sadness in Miguel’s eyes told him all he needed to know. He stared at Miguel, waiting for him to say the fateful words.

“It’s Javi, David. The jaguar killed Javi.”

He moved forward, breaking Miguel’s hold on him and pushed his way through the crowd to find Javi’s mother kneeling beside the obviously dead body of her son. Dave went to his knees beside the boy, tears filling his eyes as he took in the bite wounds in the shoulder and the gaping wounds from the cat’s claws across the stomach.

Javi’s face was unmarred and, if you didn’t look at the rest of his body, you would think the young boy was sleeping peacefully.

Dave ran his hand over the boy’s dark hair and down the side of his face, knowing the boy was dead but unable to accept the fact. Slowly he looked up at Javi’s mother, into her tear-filled eyes and, suddenly, he couldn’t take it. He had to get away, he had to run.

He stumbled as he pushed his way back through the crowd, angry thoughts racing though his mind.

The fucking jungle! The fucking jungle took another one! I hate the fucking jungle!

He pushed past people, not seeing their faces. He didn’t hear their words. He just had to get away.

He ran without direction, until the vegetation loomed before him. He stumbled to a stop, looking up at the massive wall of trees and foliage.

“You fucking bastard!” he screamed, tears streaming down his face. “You fucking jungle!”

He jumped as he felt a hand on his arm. Turning to confront whoever was intruding on his grief, he found Miguel, saw the same sadness on his face that he felt in his heart and, suddenly, he collapsed into the younger man’s arms.

He didn’t remember how it happened but Dave found himself back in the building that housed the students, sitting on the bunk that he slept on, Miguel handing him a cup of water.

“Drink, my friend. Please.”

Dave took the cup and drained it then let the cup fall to the floor. Finally, he looked at Miguel, searching his eyes. “What happened, Miguel? How? I mean, Javi was always so careful. He knew the dangers. How did this happen to him?”

Miguel shook his head, looking at Dave with saddened eyes. “I don’t know, my friend. Javi, he was alone. Maybe he got distracted; maybe he didn’t see the cat. I don’t know. He was only a little boy. Smart and aware but still, just a little boy.” Miguel hung his head, shaking it in the futility of his explanation, his own grief apparent.

Dave placed his hand on top of the bowed head, offering what little comfort he could. There was no explanation, no reason, no justification. The jungle, and the evil creatures that dwelt there, had taken another of his friends.

Dave knew he couldn’t stay here any longer. He had to leave.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Two days later found Dave making his way through the village for the last time, his duffle bag across his back, a machete in his hand.

He had said his farewells to the students and workers, to the villagers and, finally to Miguel. He gave his friend his uncle’s address and phone number, telling him to contact him if he ever needed anything. Miguel promised that he would but, sadly, both men knew that they would never see each other again.

Coming to the edge of the village, Dave stopped as he saw Javi’s mother walking toward him. As she moved closer, he took both her hands in his, kissing her gently on the cheek. He stood back, still holding her hands but not knowing what to say. What do you say to a woman who just lost her child, her sweet little boy, to such a horrible death? Dave felt the tears begin to catch in his throat.

Javi’s mother took her one hand and placed it aside his face, gently wiping the tears from his eye.

“He loved you, my Javi,” she said in heavily accented English. “You were a…a hero to him.” She stumbled over her words, struggling to let him know how important he had been to her son.

“He was a very special boy. I will never, never forget him,” Dave promised.

She smiled and wrapped both of her hands around his left one, squeezing gently. She looked down at his hand, at the ring on his little finger. Slowly, she reached for her right hand, to the gold band around her own finger. Pulling it off, she slid the ring onto Dave’s little finger, snug against the other.

Patting his hand, she smiled up at him. “Nunca olvides,” she whispered. “Never forget.”

Dave nodded and kissed her cheek again then walked out of the village, into the hated jungle.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

When his thoughts returned to the present, he found himself turning the two rings that now adorned his little finger. 

Frankie and Javi.  Two beautiful human beings.  Two people who were his friends.  Two victims, in different ways, of the evils of the jungle.

Dave shook his head then looked around, surprised to see that, as he sat lost in his memories, the families had left him alone in the clearing. 

He stood up and stretched his body, a bit stiff from sitting too long.  He then walked down towards the water, lighting yet another cigarette along the way. 

He stood at the edge of the pond, just watching.  The children had left, so the ducks had returned.  He watched as they paddled lazily across the water.  He smiled at one duck being closely followed by six ducklings.

“Be safe, little momma,” he whispered.  “You take good care of those babies.”

“Oh, she will,” came a voice from behind him. “But who’s gonna be takin’ care of you?”

Dave turned, falling into a crouch, startled that someone had snuck up on him.

“Hey, easy there, soldier.  It’s just harmless little ole me.”

“Huggy?” Dave slowly stood then, recognizing his oldest friend, and threw his arms around the skinny man. “Huggy!”

Huggy laughed as he returned the greeting then stepped back.  “Let me have a look at your sorry self.”

Holding his arms out to his sides, Dave turned around, giving his friend a total view.

“Acceptable, acceptable.” Huggy smiled.  As Dave dropped his arms, Huggy turned a bit more serious.  “Sorry I’m late.  Have you been waiting very long?”

“Not too long,” Dave said as both men walked back towards the tables.  “It’s okay, though.  Not like I got anything better to do.”

“Well, I got something better for us to do.” Huggy threw an arm around Dave’s shoulders.  “How about a beer.  I got something I want to show you.”

Dave agreed and both men began walking out of the park.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

They walked for a few blocks, exchanging meaningless comments, until they came to a place that was obviously a bar, the name, “Jake’s,” lit up in neon.  Huggy pulled open the door and ushered Dave inside.

Dave surveyed the place as they entered.  It was adequately lit and, although a bit run down, appeared to be clean.  There was a bar to one side of the room, with booths along the opposite wall.  There were a scattering of tables in between, with a juke box on the short wall opposite the door.  A few patrons were scattered around, some at the bar, some at tables.  

At the end of the bar was a staircase leading to an upper level.  Beyond the staircase was what appeared to be a kitchen and, down a narrow hallway, a door that Dave assumed lead to a back alley.

Huggy directed him to the last booth while he headed to the end of the bar.  As Dave sat, facing the room, he saw Huggy say something to the guy in the kitchen then go behind the bar and draw a couple of beers.  The bartender walked over and said something to Huggy, who responded with a smile and a nod and a few words.  He saw the bartender look over at him then go back to tending his customers.  

Dave continued to look the place over.  It could use some improvements, he decided, but didn’t seem like a bad place.

“So, what do you think?” Huggy asked as he placed a beer in front of Dave and sat on the opposite side of the table with a glass of his own.

“Think about what?” Dave asked.  He took a sip of the beer and pulled out his ever-present cigarettes, lighting one.

“This place?” Huggy waved his arm to encompass the entire room.  “Ain’t it great?”

“It’s the pits.” Dave laughed.

“Hey, be gentle.”  Huggy leaned back into the seat.  “In the next year or two, this will all be mine.”

“Yours, huh?”

“Yeah.”  He turned to face Dave.  “See, the owner, Jake…that’s him over there,” he pointed to the bartender.  “He’s an ex-cop and he’s kinda taken me under his wing, so to speak.  He’s been showing me the ropes, teaching me all about the ins and outs of running a place like this.  We have an agreement that when he retires, I buy the place.”

“And how you gonna afford to do that?”

“Well, right now, he takes a set amount out of my pay each week, for a start.  Then, in a year or two, when he decides to retire, he’ll help me get the financing for the rest.  It’s all on the up and up, all legal and documented. So,” Huggy asked again, “wha’d’ya think?”

Dave looked at his friend, taking in the smile on his face and the excitement in his eyes and he raised his glass.  “It’s great, Hug.” They both drank and Dave set down his glass, smiling. “I mean, who’da ever thought the skinny kid I met in school would grow up to be a businessman.”

Huggy returned the smile.  “Do you remember that day, when we first met?”

“Yeah.” Dave nodded.  “I was …ten, I think.  My first day at my new school and I didn’t know anybody.  And there you were, all of maybe forty-fifty pounds, doin’ your best to explain to that sixth-grader, Bobby Hamilton, why it would be to his benefit to NOT beat you up.”

“I was negotiatin’ for my life and you were just standin’ there, watchin’!”

Dave laughed. “You were makin’ a good sell.  You had me convinced.”

“Yeah, I thought so.  Then he threw that first punch. And you,” Huggy leaned in, pointing his finger at Dave, “you went crazy.  You jumped on his back, arms and legs flailing, punchin’ and kickin’ and pullin’ his hair.  He didn’t know what hit him.”

“Hey, he had six inches and twenty pounds on you.  I had to do somethin’!”

“And I appreciated it.” Huggy chuckled then shook his head.  “You were like a wildcat.  You finally got him down on the ground and all he kept yellin’ was ‘Get ‘im off me!  Get ‘im off!’”

“And that’s when Jackson showed up.”

“Yep.” Huggy nodded.  “Jackson walked over and grabbed you by the collar and pulled you offa Bobby.  He held onto you and stood there, lookin’ down at Bobby, given’ off that ‘big, bad, black militant’ vibe.  What was he, maybe two inches taller than you and me?”

“Yeah.” Dave laughed.  “But Bobby Hamilton was afraid of him.”

“Yeah, he sure was. So Jackson was standin’ there, holdin’ on to your squirmin’ little body and he says, all quiet-like, he says, ‘You may want to rethink your plan on pickin’ on the smaller brother.’  And Bobby, he said, ‘And what if I don’t?’, still tryin’ to be his big bad self.  Jackson just held you up by the collar and said, ‘Then I’ll just have ta let him go.’ You started swingin’ and kickin’ again and Bobby, well, he couldn’t get outta there fast enough!”

Dave smiled at the memory.  “Yeah, yeah, I remember.  That was the first time I met Jackson, too.  And his family.”

“Yeah.  After that, Jackson took us both to his house and introduced us to Mama Walters and she just fell in love with your cute self, all that curly hair and charming smile.”

“Yeah.  She cleaned me up and made us all sit down and eat dinner.  Then she had her neighbor…what was his name?”

“Harold…Harold Washington.”

“Yeah, she had Harold make sure I got home okay.”  Dave shook his head.  “I was worried I was gonna get in trouble for fightin’.  But Harold just told me to be honest with my folks and, whatever punishment they handed out, to take it like a man.”

“You never did tell me.  Did you get in trouble?”

“Nah.” Dave shook his head, putting out his cigarette and sticking the butt in his pocket.  “Aunt Rosie, she was mad, talkin’ about callin’ the school and reportin’ those ‘evil boys’.  Uncle Al just looked me over then said, ‘Did you give as good as you got?’  When I nodded, he patted me on the back and said, ‘Good boy.’  And John, John Blaine, he took one look at the scrapes and bruises on my face and said, ‘We’re gonna have to teach you how to fight.’”

“We sure had some great times back then.”

“Yeah, yeah we did,” Dave agreed, draining his glass.

Huggy did the same, pushing his empty glass to the side.  “So, my brother, tell me.  What’s goin’ on with you?” He held up his hand to halt Dave’s response.  “And don’t tell me nothin’, cause I got eyes.  You talk a good talk but the man I see before me is lookin’ a bit rough around the edges.  So, talk to me.”

Dave looked at Huggy for a moment then down at the tabletop, a bit embarrassed.  He’d forgotten how well Huggy could read him.

“I don’t know, Hug,” he started with a sigh, reaching into his pocket for another cigarette. “It’s like I’m outta step with…with everything! While I was in ‘Nam, all I wanted to do was get back home.  Just make it through each day, each mission and just make it home.  ‘Cus once I got home, everythin’ would be okay, ya know?”

Huggy nodded.

“But nothin’s okay.  Everything feels different.  I went back to New York, thought I might settle back there with Mom and Nicky but….” Dave just shook his head and sat quietly for a moment.

“And when I got back here, I thought I could pick back up where I left off, ya know? But, even here, I feel…outta step.  It’s like everything’s changed and I’m on the outside lookin’ in. John said that everything hasn’t changed, but I have.  He says I’m searchin’ for my place.” Dave shrugged his shoulders. “Ma said pretty much the same thing.  John said I needed to take time to figure out who I want to be now.  But I just don’t know, Hug.  I mean, look at me.  I got no job, hell, I’m livin’ at the Y, for chrissake! I know there’s a problem but I just don’t know what it is.”

“Well, through my extraordinary powers of observation, I’ve formed a few opinions, if you don’t mind me offerin’.”

When Dave looked up, meeting his friend’s eyes, Huggy continued.

“In here,” Huggy tapped his finger on Dave’s chest, over his heart. “In here, you’re outta the Army and back home.  But, in here,” he tapped Dave’s forehead, “here you’re still in ‘Nam.”

“You’re crazy,” Dave huffed as he took a drag of his cigarette.

“Yeah? Just look at you.  Still in combat boots and army jacket.  And your hair.  You used to spend more time on that than most women ’cuz you knew the ladies just love your hair and here you are, lookin’ like a skin-head.”

“It’s easier…” Dave tried to explain as he rubbed a hand over his scalp.

“Yeah,” Huggy agreed.  “If you’re in the jungle.  But that’s not all.  There are your actions.”

“Like what?” Dave challenged, suddenly feeling defensive.

“When you walked in here, the first thing you did was scope out the place. I watched you.  You checked out the room, the people; you located the alternate exit.  You did a recon.” 

Dave looked away, tapping the ash off of his cigarette. Huggy place his hand on Dave’s arm, grabbing his attention again. 

“Since we’ve been talkin’ you’ve been sittin’ here with your back to the wall scannin’ the room.  Every thirty to forty-five seconds, you look around, checkin’ the people, the doors.  You’re sitting sentry.”

Dave pinched the end of his cigarette and stuck the butt in his pocket.

“And that!”

“What?” Dave asked, looking back at him in surprise.

“That.” Huggy pointed to Dave’s pocket.  “Since we’ve been sittin’ here, you’ve had three cigarettes.  And every time you do that!  You knock off the ash, brush it away, pinch the end of the butt then stick it in your pocket.  You’re still policing your butts!”

They stared at each other for a moment then Huggy patted Dave’s arm.  “You survived, my friend.  You made it home.  It’s time to let the soldier rest.”

They sat quietly for a few minutes, Dave lost in thoughts and Huggy just watching.  When a waitress walked by with a tray of empty dishes, Huggy grabbed an empty bowl off the tray and placed it on the table. 

‘C’mon,” he said.  “Empty your pockets.”

“What?” Dave, his attention pulled back to the present, just looked at him.

“Stand up and empty your pockets.” Huggy pushed the bowl toward Dave, who rolled his eyes and reluctantly slid out of the booth, stood and began emptying his pockets.  When he was finished, there were about forty to fifty cigarette butts and matches in the bowl.  He slid back into the seat as Huggy looked at him in shock.

“Please tell me they’re not all from today.” Dave just looked at him, cringing a bit. “You smoke way too much, my brother,” he said as he stood.

“I know,” Dave agreed.  “I gotta cut down.”

“Cut down, nothin’!  You gotta stop.  Those things are gonna kill ya.”

“You smoke!” Dave challenged.  “Pot…kettle…”

Huggy held up his hand to stop the comment.  “Were you just gonna call me black?” he asked with a smile.  Just then his name was shouted from across the room.  “Stay here and I’ll be right back.”

Dave sat back in the booth and watched Huggy walk over to the bar, dumping his cigarette butts in the trash.  His thoughts turned to the things Huggy had said.  Was he still being the soldier, still being on guard?

He caught himself as his eyes began to scan the room again, realizing that Huggy was right.  He was sitting sentry.  He did the same thing at the park earlier today, sitting, watching the families and the kids. 

And the cigarettes!  In ‘Nam, no matter where you were or what you were doing, you always policed your area, making sure you never left behind anything that let the enemy know you were there.  Especially cigarette butts.

He thought back to his time in New York, his time here, even his time in Mexico. He hadn’t even realized he was still doing it.

Huggy was right.  In his mind, he was still the soldier.  Well, he thought, It’s time to put the soldier to rest.

At that moment, Huggy came back to the table, placing another beer in front of him along with a plate of fries and a burger.

“Here,” Huggy said. ”Eat.”

“Huggy… I can’t…”

“Just eat, will ya?  Mama Walters will skin me alive if she sees you being all skinny like that.” He pushed the plate closer to Dave.  “You eat and I’ll fill you in on what’s gonna happen next.”

He waited for Dave to pick up the burger and take a bite before he continued.  “Now, when you’re done here, we’re gonna head over to the Y and get your things.”

“Yeah?” Dave asked around his mouthful of food.  “And where am I gonna live?”

Huggy pointed to the staircase at the end of the bar.  “Upstairs are two rooms.  I live in one of them but the other one is empty.  Now, it ain’t much but there’s a bed and a private bath.  You can stay there.”

Dave put his burger down, shaking his head.  “Huggy, I can’t afford…”

Huggy held up his hand, cutting off his protest.  “I’ve already squared it with Jake.  You get to stay in the room until you get yourself together and, in return, you agree to help out here when needed.  Maybe as a bartender, maybe as a dishwasher.  Maybe you’ll be waiting on tables or maybe you’ll be bussing them.  Whatever Jake needs. You cool with that?”

Dave thought a moment then nodded. 

“And when you find yourself gainfully employed, you can give Jake twenty bucks a week for the room, at least until you find something better. Agreed?”

Dave nodded again.  “Thanks, Hug.  I…I really appreciate it.”

“Everybody needs a little help sometimes.  You’ve always been there for me, my friend.  Now it’s my turn to be here for you.”

Dave nodded again, a bit choked up. 

“Great!” Huggy smiled, patting Dave’s arm.  “Finish up then let’s get this show on the road.” 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

True to his word, Huggy helped him retrieve his belongings from the Y and moved him into the second room upstairs.  And he was right…it wasn’t much: a bed, an easy chair, a small table and chair, a dresser.  There was a small closet to hang his clothes and a bathroom, with a shower.  Not much but it had everything he needed.  And it was nice having Huggy nearby.

And true to his word, when he wasn’t out looking for a job, Dave helped out in the bar.  Everything from tending bar to washing dishes to taking out the trash. 

He had found some random jobs: doorman at a club for a couple of nights, delivery for a pharmacy for another few days.  He even tried pizza delivery for one night before he decided it was definitely not for him.  What he’d found was enough to put a few dollars in his pockets but, so far, nothing permanent.

He also starting working on getting himself together. Step one was keeping the soldier in him under control.  Being vigilant was not a bad thing but he made a conscious effort to not become super-vigilant.  It wasn’t easy but, gradually, he found himself feeling not so much on the outside anymore.  Step two was cutting down on the cigarettes. 

Now, two weeks after moving into the room over the bar, he was down to one pack of smokes day.  He knew that wouldn’t sound like a big deal for anyone else, but for someone who had emptied almost two packs of butts out of his pockets two weeks before, it was an accomplishment.

He’d been working at the bar all morning, helping out in the kitchen.  He was just coming in the back door after taking out the trash when he heard Huggy calling his name.

“Right here, Hug.  What’s up?” he responded as walked past the kitchen, heading for the main room.

“There’s someone here that wants a word with you.”

He entered the room to be greeted by a face he hadn’t seen in far too long.

“Well, if it isn’t David Starsky, the little wildcat!”

“Jackson?  Jackson Walters!”  Dave moved forward, wrapping his arms around his old friend. Exchanging pats on the backs, both men stepped away, looking each other up and down. 

Finally, Jackson spoke. “So how you doin’?  You’re not looking half as bad as Huggy led me to believe.”

Dave laughed.  “Well, I’m getting my act together here…with Huggy’s help, of course.”

“I’ve made but a small contribution to the rehabilitation of young Starsky here,” Huggy said. “Go, sit down.  I’ll get your order.  And a couple of beers, of course.”

“Not for me, Hug.” Dave headed to the kitchen.  “I’ll get a coffee.”

Soon the three men were sitting in a booth, talking over old times, exchanging recent histories, while Jackson ate his burger.

“Hold on, hold on,” Jackson said, putting down his sandwich and pulling his wallet from his back pocket.  “I’ve got something you’ve got to see.” He removed a picture from his wallet, passing it over to Dave.  “Let me introduce you to Jackson Walters, Jr.  My son.”

“Son?” Dave smiled as he looked at the picture of a boy of four-, maybe five-years-old, bright eyes and a big smile.  “He’s beautiful, Jackson.  Really.” He handed the picture back.  “So, you’ve been busy while I’ve been gone.”

“Yeah.” Jackson beamed as he returned the picture to its place of safety.  “It hasn’t been easy at times but, well, Junior’s worth it.”

Dave reached out to his friend, asking with just a look.  Jackson nodded at the offer of comfort.  “Do you remember Molly Hastings?” 

Dave nodded.

“We got married about a month after you left town.  And seven months later, Junior was born.”  Jackson chuckled. “Yeah, it was like that.  We were planning on getting married anyway but, well, we felt the need to move things up a bit, ya know?”

Dave nodded again, as his friend continued. 

“Life was good for us.  Then Molly got sick…cancer.  She died when Junior was two.  After that, we moved back in with Mama.  Junior, he loves Mama and she just adores him, so life isn’t so bad.”

“And what are you doin’ with yourself?”

“Well, right now I’m driving a cab.  I’ve got an application in for a public transit job but, until that comes through, I make enough to keep my family going.” 

They talked for a while longer until Jackson finished his lunch.  Pushing away his plate, Jackson started to get up.  “Well, I’ve got to get going.  Back to the grind, ya know.”

Dave smiled at his friend as he, too, stood. 

“Hey, Starsky.  You ever think about driving a cab?” Huggy asked, still sitting in the booth.

“Uh, no, not really,” Dave answered, looking at Huggy then back to Jackson.

“You interested?” Jackson asked.  “My boss, he’s always looking for good drivers, and I know you can drive.  He’s a fair man; he’ll work with you as far as scheduling.”

Dave was quiet for a moment.  “Driving a cab, huh?  I hadn’t thought about that.”

“Well, the pay isn’t great but it’s more than enough to keep you going until you decide what you really want to do. If you’re interested and you want to give it a shot, I’ll be happy to take you down and introduce you.”

“Let me think about it, okay?”  Dave offered his hand to his friend. 

Jackson took the hand, shaking it.  “Sure.  Give me a call in a day or so.  Huggy’s got my number.  You can come by the house for dinner.  Mama will be so happy to see you.”

“What am I?” Huggy asked “Chopped liver?”

Both Jackson and Dave laughed.  “All right,” Jackson said to Dave. “You can bring the skinny guy, too.”

They said their farewells and Jackson left.  Dave sat back down in the booth, across the table from Huggy.

“So,” Huggy asked.  “You thinkin’ about it?”

“Yeah,” Dave said, a bit distracted, thinking about the possibility of a steady job.  “I’m thinkin’ about it.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

It was a comfortable spring day on the streets of L.A. Sunny, with a gentle breeze. Dave sat in his cab along the curb, watching and waiting. He had picked up a number of fares during the day, some from dispatch, some pick-ups from the taxi stands. Then he spent some time just driving around, hoping to pick up random fares.

After following up on Jackson’s suggestion, he’d been driving the cab for about three months now. It wasn’t a bad job, just one he knew he wouldn’t want to do forever. As Jackson had said, the pay wasn’t great but at least he made enough to pay Jake for the room, buy food, and have a bit of fun. And he wasn’t hanging around the bar all day. He’d realized early on that could become a problem.

Not that driving a cab didn’t have its own dangers. During those months there had been two attempts to rob him but those gentlemen soon learned the error of their ways. Now he kept a handgun tucked into the seat beside him, within easy reach.

As he waited, he pulled off his knit cap and rubbed his hands over his head. At least Ma will be happy to know my curls have grown back, he thought with a smile. He put the cap back on then rubbed a finger over his upper lip. She probably wouldn’t like the moustache, though.

Drumming a rat-tat-tat on the steering wheel, he looked around, hoping to spot a fare. One more and he’d call it a day.

Suddenly, the sound of gunfire filled the air. Looking through the windshield, Dave saw a man, about two blocks away, running in his direction, followed by two uniformed officers. The sounds of “Stop! Police!” were drowned out by the gunfire as the man turned and shot behind him as he continued to run.

Dave started the car and slowly pulled into traffic, as pedestrians scattered in all directions. Keeping an eye on the runner, he closed in on the fleeing man until, suddenly, he hit the gas and, at full speed, turned sharply, taking the cab up onto the sidewalk, directly in front of the perp.

Dave jumped out of the cab just as the runner hit the front fender, his gun flying out of his hand and hitting the sidewalk. Before he could recover, Dave was on him, practically sitting on his back, pinning him to the car.

“Hold it right there!”

The two uniformed officers came up behind them, both out of breath, with their guns drawn. Dave held up his hands to show he was unarmed as he heard someone else run up.

“What’s going on here?”

This voice was one he recognized. He turned his head just enough to get a look and verified that Lieutenant John Blaine was now on the scene.

“The perp was getting away from us, sir!” one officer said, still holding his gun on Dave and the criminal.

“Then this cabbie here drove up on the sidewalk and almost hit him,” the second officer added.

“One of you get handcuffs on that guy and get him down to Metro.” At John’s command, one officer put away his gun. As he pulled Dave off the runner, John recognized his friend but made no acknowledgement.

“What about the cabbie, sir?” the second officer asked.

“Hold him here until I get back,” John said as he turned and walked back in the direction from which he came.

It was about thirty minutes later that Dave glanced up to see John walking towards him, looking tired and a bit stressed out. The officer with him saw John at the same time and jumped to attention. Dave remained leaning against his cab, now parked back in the street, his head down, arms crossed against his chest, legs crossed at the ankles.

“I detained the cabbie, as ordered, sir!”

Forcing himself to keep his head down, not wanting the officer to see him smiling, Dave wondered if the guy was going to salute.

John also had to restrain a smile at the over-eager officer. “Very good, Officer. Woods, isn’t it?”

“Yes, sir. Officer Martin Woods.”

“Well, Officer Woods, I want you to head back in. I’ll expect your complete report of this incident on my desk by the end of the day. Is that understood?”

“Yes, sir,” Officer Woods replied, as he climbed into a nearby squad car and drove off.

John watched the officer leave then turned to Starsky, who was still leaning against the car. “Now…do you mind telling me what the hell you think you were doing here today?” he asked, a touch of anger in his voice.

“Now, John…”

“Don’t ‘Now, John’ me! Do you have any idea what you put yourself in the middle of? That man was armed! He was firing at anything in his way. He’d just shot my partner, for Christ sake!”

Dave turned serious as he stepped towards his friend. “Your partner? Is he all right?”

“Yeah, yeah, he’s fine,” John answered, waving off Dave’s concern. “Got clipped in the shoulder. He’ll be back to work in a week.” His anger dissipated as he looked back at Starsky. “Are you still on duty?”

“No. I called my dispatcher while I was waiting. Told him I was ‘assisting’ the police.” Dave shook his head as he chuckled. “He just wanted to be sure you weren’t going to confiscate the cab.”

“No, I won’t. But I do need to get your information for my report.”

“So it’s down to the station?”

“No,” John said. “Taylor’s is just around the corner. Want to grab a beer?”

“Sure.” Dave agreed as he locked up the cab. That accomplished, he stepped closer to John.

John put a hand on Dave’s arm, stopping him. “So…what’s with the…?” He pointed to Dave’s upper lip.

“The moustache?” Dave smiled, running his fingers over the facial hair. “Just thought I’d give it a try. You like it?”

John draped his arm over Starsky’s shoulder as they started walking. “Makes you look like a porn star.”

Dave threw back his head and laughed.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Entering Taylor’s, they walked over and took a place at the bar.

John ordered two beers then turned to Dave. “Okay, kid. Spill it.”

“Funny.” Dave smiled. “That’s how these conversations always seem to start.”

When John remained silent, Dave nodded and began. “It’s simple. I heard the gun shots; I saw the guy running towards me. I saw the officers chasing him. I realized I could stop him. He wouldn’t expect me to come at him from the front.” Dave shrugged his shoulders. “So I cut him off. I saw his gun go flying so I knew he was unarmed. I got out and jumped on him, waiting for the officers to get there.”

The bartender slid the glasses of beer in front of them as Dave turned to meet John’s eyes. “Trust me, John. If I hadn’t seen the gun go flyin’, I would have stayed in the cab. But I knew I wasn’t in danger and I knew I could help.”

John just stared at him for a moment then nodded. Picking up his glass, he raised it to Dave. “You can be a crazy sonofabitch, David, but you’ve got good instincts.”

Picking up his glass, Dave touched it to John’s, smiled and both men took a drink.

“So, how are you doing?” John asked.

“I’m doing okay, John.” Dave shrugged. “Better.”

“Well, you definitely look better than you did the last time I saw you. Except for the moustache, of course.”

Dave chuckled. “Yeah. I got a room over a bar near 4th and Main, Jake’s. He’s a good guy.” Dave looked over at John. “Huggy’s there, too. Him and Jake have a deal. When Jake retires in a few years, Huggy buys the place.”

He watched John’s face as he was talking, seeing the sparkle in his eyes and the hint of a smile. “But you knew all that, didn’t you? You knew about Jake and Huggy…and me.”

John’s smile grew bigger as he placed his glass on the bar. “Yeah, I knew.” He looked back at Dave. “A few years ago, Jake gives me a call. We knew each other on the job. He was a good cop and an even better friend. Anyway, he asked me if I knew anything about this skinny black kid named Huggy. Apparently, he’d mentioned my name in passing. So, I told him that Huggy was a good kid, smart as a whip, and he should give him a chance. I told him Huggy could probably use some help staying on the straight and narrow.”

“Huggy’s too smart to get involved in anything criminal.”

“Yeah, Huggy is smart. But we can all use a little help, sometimes.”

Dave nodded in agreement. He knew that the criminal element was as prevalent in Huggy’s old neighborhood as it was in his back in Brooklyn.

“And me?”

“Well, a couple of months ago, Jake calls me again, wanting to know what I could tell him about a friend of Huggy’s named David Starsky. So I told him the truth.”

“And Jake still let me stay there.” Both men laughed at the shared joke.

“So,” John began, putting his glass down. “Still driving a cab, huh?”

“Yeah.”

“You like it?”

“It’s okay.” Dave took another drink then put the glass down as he sighed. “I don’t want to do it forever but it’ll do until I get things figured out.”

“Still searching for your place?”

Dave began playing with the ring of water on the bar. “I don’t know, John. I’ve got somewhere to live, I got a job, friends…but somethin’ is still missin’. It’s getting better but I still don’t feel like I fit, like somehow, I don’t belong.”

John took a sip of his beer. “You know, I remember about ten, twelve years ago, meeting up with this young kid. Full of attitude, all piss and vinegar, you know? Well, this kid, all he would talk about was that he was gonna grow up and be a cop, just like his old man.” John looked over at Dave. “What happened to that dream, David?”

“It was just that, John. A dream.” Dave picked up his glass and drained it, replacing it gently on the bar. When John didn’t say anything, Dave hung his head.

“I looked into it, John. I did. When I first got back, ya know? But, while I was running around in the jungle, trying not to get my ass shot off, the police, they changed the rules. Now they require a college degree, John. And I don’t have a college degree!”

John studied Dave for a moment, taking in his dejected demeanor. Suddenly, he had a knowing look, as if he knew exactly what had happened.

“So, let me guess,” John said. “You read as far as the ‘college degree’ requirement and stopped, right?” When David didn’t respond, John chuckled. “You a smart man, David, but you can really be a stupid ass sometimes.”

When Dave’s head snapped up and he looked at John with a shocked expression, John laughed.

“First off, a high school diploma is required. College is only ‘preferred’. And, if you had read a little bit further, you would have seen that the requirements actually states ‘college OR equivalent experience.’

“Now, those guys coming in with their college degrees, they’re smart guys, I’ll give ‘em that. They’ve got the book-smarts but most of them don’t have the common sense God gave a duck. You got them beat, hands down, in that area. Dear God, David…you spent two tours in Vietnam! That’s more ‘equivalent experience’ than these guys are ever going to have!”

Dave just stared at John, shocked.

“Look.” John put a hand on Dave’s arm. “Do you want to be a cop?”

Dave slowly nodded and John smiled. “Okay. You still coming to your uncle’s house on Thursday for dinner?”

Dave nodded again.

“You stop over at my place and I’ll have the application for you to fill out. When you’ve done that, give it back to me and I’ll take it in personally. If they like what they see, they’ll call you in for a test, Iike an interview. With that, and my recommendation, you’ll be a shoe-in.”

“You can really do that, John?” David asked in wonder. “You think I could get in and be a cop?”

“David, you were born to be a cop. And you’ll be a great cop. Those college guys, about ten percent of them won’t cut it and about half of the remaining ones will move on to something they consider bigger or better. Some of them will turn into good cops but, trust me, none of them will become half the cop you will be.”

John watched as the look on Dave’s face turned from wonder to surprise to sheer joy.

“I…I could be a cop,” Dave whispered, smiling. “That calls for a celebration. Bartender,” he shouted “another round, on me!”

And, for the first time since David’s return from ‘Nam, John saw the young man he’d always known.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

The following Thursday, Dave made his normal dinner visit with his aunt and uncle. Following the meal, he walked over to John Blaine’s house, more nervous than he could remember being in a very long time. Maybe John forgot. Maybe he changed his mind. Maybe he thought Dave really wasn’t cop material.

But, true to his word, John presented him with the entrance application. They talked a while. John told him what would need to be attached to the form. Then he explained the next steps; the investigation, where they would verify all of the information he’d provide plus look into his history on their own, followed, at a later date, by the interview, where they’d evaluate him face-to-face.

John assured him that he had nothing to worry about, that everything would work out for him, that John’s recommendation would go a long way. Dave left feeling more hopeful than he’d felt since his return to the states.

Two days later, Dave returned the application, with all required documentation, to John, who promised to submit it the very next day. Over the next three weeks Dave went through physical examinations, mental examinations, and, finally, the interview. Now all he could do was wait.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

It was the first week in May and Dave had spent the intervening weeks working as many shifts as he could, mostly to keep himself from going crazy, waiting to hear from the LAPD. The extra money he was making didn’t hurt, either.

Now, at the end of another shift, he walked into Jake’s, wanting nothing more than a cold beer and a hot meal. No sooner did the door close behind him then he heard his name being called.

“Hey, Starsky!”

He looked at the far end of the bar to see Jake and Huggy standing together, Jake holding up an envelope and Huggy pointing, directing him over to the last booth by the wall. With nervous anticipation, he made his way to the booth and sat down.

Within a few minutes, Huggy came over, placed two beers on the table and sat down across from Dave. He caught Dave’s eye as he slowly placed the envelope on the table between them.

“I figure whatever is in this letter, you’d need a drink.” With that, Huggy slid the envelope over to him.

Dave pulled the envelope closer, seeing the embossed title of the Los Angeles Police Department in the top left corner and took a deep breath. A myriad of emotions raced through him: anticipation, fear, worry, hope. Slowly, he picked up the envelope, slid his fingers under the flap and pulled out the letter.

Watching from the other side of the table, Dave knew Huggy could see the fear in his eyes as Dave began to read. Huggy continued to watch as Dave’s fear turned into something else. When Huggy couldn’t hold back any longer, he demanded, “Well??? What does it say?”

Dave looked at Huggy and wasn’t embarrassed that Huggy could see tears in Dave’s eyes. Huggy’s sudden concern vanished as he heard the words Dave began to read.

“David Michael Starsky, we are pl-pleased,” Dave stuttered for a moment before he continued, “pleased to inform you that you have been selected to attend the next class of the Los Angeles Police Academy.” He looked up at Huggy, a bright smile creasing his face. “I made it, Hug. I’m in!”

“All right, my brother.” Huggy patted his arm. “When do classes start?”

“Let me see.” Dave scanned the rest of the letter. “Says here that the class starts on Monday, June third. It also says that cadets can start reporting in as early as a week prior, on Monday, May twenty-seventh.”

“Great. That gives you about a month to get your sorry ass in gear.” Huggy laughed, then pick up his glass, indicating for Dave to pick up his. “A toast,” Huggy said. “A toast to the future Officer David Starsky.”

Dave took a drink. “Detective, Hug. My plan is to be Detective David Starsky!”

Huggy laughed. “Well, let’s concentrate on making it through the academy first, okay DEE..tec..tive?”

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

He had arrived at the Academy on Monday, the first day the cadets were able to report.

The man who reported in that day was a bit different from the man who had so excitedly read that acceptance letter. Gone was the moustache, which wasn’t allowed at the academy. He also had his hair cut short. Not the crew cut he left the army with but short enough to meet police regulations.

Another victim of his transformation into police cadet was his cigarette habit. He had been cutting down but now, he decided, he was done.

Smoking’s about who I used to be, about being the soldier, he’d thought. The ‘new’ me, the cop, wouldn’t smoke.

So, with his duffle bag in hand, he reported in, filled out forms and received his books and manuals. He met with the counselor, who explained the rules and requirements of attending the Academy, gave him the schedule and assigned him a room in the dorm.

He checked out his dorm room, the place he’d be living for the next six months. He also met his roommate, Andrew Jefferson. About his height, he was thinner than Dave, with light brown hair. He welcomed Dave with a firm handshake then directed him to his side of the room.

Utilitarian in design, the room had a twin bed, a desk, a chair, and a dresser/closet combination on one side of the room. The other side of the room was set up the same, already claimed by his roommate.

As he began to transfer his clothes from his duffle to the dresser, Andrew began to regale him with all of the knowledge he’d acquired about the Academy in the few hours he been there. As he prattled on, Dave smiled. The kid seemed nervous and excited but also a bit naïve. He was sure that some of these other cadets would eat him alive.

Dave decided that he’d have to keep an eye on Andrew.

Now it was Thursday morning. The partly cloudy sky and the steady breeze were keeping the warm day from getting too hot. From the small hillock overlooking the Admin building, Dave had a view of the entrance to the dorms and the gym, the running track and the cafeteria, along with the Admin building itself. Sitting on the ground, he watched.

Still doing recon, he thought with a chuckle.

As he scanned the area, he grabbed a pack of peanuts from his pocket and opened it, popping a handful into his mouth. He’d taken to carrying munchies with him to help curb his need for his smokes.

There was his roommate, Andy, coming out of the dorm. Dave watched as he walked towards the gym. On the way, Andy met up with a cadet named William Stevenson. Dave hadn’t actually met him yet but he wasn’t sure he liked what he’d seen so far. He watched until they both entered the gym then continued to scan.

He spied Al Travers walking alone towards the cafeteria. He had met Al there on Monday, when he went to grab dinner. Al had been aggressive at first, as if just waiting for someone to challenge him. But, after talking for a few minutes, and realizing that Dave didn’t really care that he was black, he’d seemed to relax. They had a nice conversation, got to know each other a bit and Dave felt that he’d made a friend. Dave even found out that Al’s name was really Aloysius… “But don’t tell anybody that,” he’d been cautioned.

Al was about six feet tall and looked to be in good shape. Dave felt that, in a pinch, Al would be able to handle himself. But Dave decided to be on the lookout, just in case Al ever needed backup.

Looking over towards the track, he saw someone else he recognized. “Ah,” he smiled. “There’s Country-Boy.”

He’d watched this guy show up yesterday, book bag and suitcase in hand, and found himself immediately intrigued. About six feet tall, skinny, almost white blond hair and a big golly gee smile on his face, with a look of wonder in his blue eyes, he virtually screamed country boy. He appeared to be totally in awe of his surroundings. Dave had watched as he tried to take it all in. But when the kid tripped going up the steps to the Admin building, his book bag skidding across the ground, Dave shook his head, chuckled, and wondered how this kid was ever going to make it on the streets. But Dave had seen something in Country-Boy, and he knew he’d have to keep an eye on this one. He obviously needed someone to watch his back.

He continued scanning the grounds until the thought of lunch got his attention. With that, Dave pulled his knit cap onto his head, grabbed his book and his jacket and headed back to the dorm.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

At last, the first day of classes was finally here. They had begun the day in a lecture hall, for “Introduction to The Academy.”

Class materials were handed out, including the official Police Academy manual. Maps of the academy grounds were supplied, showing the working areas, the restricted areas, and the areas that were open access. The buildings where classes were held and the dorms were discussed. Class schedules and dormitory rules were reviewed.

For those who had arrived earlier in the week and had received all of these materials, it was a refresher, a reinforcement of all of the rules. For those cadets arriving just today, it was an eye-opening experience.

I could just be back in the army, Dave had thought with a slight smile.

The class of fifty cadets, all dressed in their bright new uniforms, were seated by last name, placing him higher up in the back row of the hall. This gave him the opportunity to silently observe his new classmates. Since his arrival a week earlier, he’d been watching, getting the lay of the land, getting a feel for the recruits.

Like Stevenson, seated to his left, drawing guns and targets on his notebook.

William “Bull” Stevenson was about six-foot-four, maybe two hundred twenty-five pounds. From his observation, Dave knew that Stevenson was arrogant and lazy, doing what was required only when the staff was watching. More importantly, Stevenson was a bully. Dave had seen him, on a number of occasions during the week, using his large frame to intimidate other, smaller cadets. He also noticed that Stevenson had garnered a following of three or four cadets, his dorm roommate, Andy, included.

Stevenson and his gang didn’t deserve to be cops, Dave thought, and he was determined to keep his eye on them.

He spied Al sitting at the end of his aisle and gave him a nod. Dave then scanned the room below him, looking for the cadet he now called Blondie. He would never call the man that to his face. A silly nickname like that could stick with a man for life. But, until he found out the man’s real name, Blondie would have to do.

Spotting him a few rows up from the bottom, Dave smiled. He had originally dubbed him Country Boy, thinking him a bit gangly, a bit clumsy, and maybe not possessing a lot of big city common sense. A few days later, he adjusted this first impression, though. What Dave had originally thought was thin was really an athletically toned body, the body of a runner. His work-out schedule showed that he was strong and quick. So maybe Blondie wasn’t helpless, just naïve.

For some unexplained reason, Dave felt that he had to get to know this man.

After that class ended, they all headed to the gym. Now, with a few minutes before the beginning of their class on Hand-to-Hand Combat, the gym was filled with the current class of cadets, each performing their own before class rituals. Some were running sprints, some were just standing and talking, others using the free time to study.

Dave was sitting near the bottom of the bleachers, his ever-present Police Manual opened on his lap, still observing.

He saw Blondie a few feet away, working through his stretching regime, when he heard a deep voice.

“Don’t hurt yourself there, skinny!”

Discreetly watching without raising his head, he saw Bull Stevenson walking towards them, with Blondie as his target. From the look on Blondie’s face, Dave knew that he recognized the man coming towards him for what he was. Dave saw a look of determination enter Blondie’s eyes and knew that he wasn’t going to let the man or his gang intimidate him.

I don’t think Blondie needs my help but I’m just gonna watch and see how this turns out, he thought.

Dave watched as Stevenson stepped up to the blond man, crowding him, which was one of his normal intimidating acts. He was followed by his gang: his roommate Andy and three lesser bullies who weren’t as brave or maybe as stupid as Stevenson.

“What do you want, Stevenson?” Blondie asked.

“What are you doing over here, all by yourself? What’s the matter, Hutchinson, afraid to play with the big boys?” The crowd behind Stevenson snickered. He smiled in acknowledgement and stepped closer to Blondie, chests almost touching.

“You know, I’m worried about you, Hutchinson. I’m afraid you’re gonna get out there on the streets and some old wino might knock you down and you might skin your pretty little knees.”

Additional snickers from the small crowd. Others around the room began noticing.

“Maybe I should find you after class and give you some pointers, you know. Take you out back and maybe toughen you up a bit.” An evil smile crossed Stevenson’s face.

“I wouldn’t do that if I were you.”

They all turned to look at Dave, still sitting quietly on the bleachers, head down, as if engrossed in his book. So much for just watchin’, Dave thought as he looked up.

“And why is that, Starsky?” Stevenson asked, pulling himself up to his full height in challenge, the men behind him snickering.

So, he knows who I am. Good, Dave thought as he closed his manual and quietly looked at Stevenson. He glanced over at Blondie and took in the slight frown and the look in his eyes that told Dave a number of things. This man didn’t appreciate his interruption. He felt that he could take care of himself and he didn’t need anyone coming to his rescue.

Dave caught his eye and tried to send him a message…a statement, a request. It’s okay, the look said. Let me do this. Watch and have a little fun.

This silent communication didn’t seem out of place. Somehow, it felt natural. With an almost imperceptible nod, Blondie acknowledge and accepted the request. A barely-there smile was the response Dave sent back as his attention turned back to Stevenson.

“Well, I was just reading here,” he tapped the book, “that one of the most important skills for being a good police officer is observation. Seeing and assessing the territory and people around you. Now I have observed, over the few days that we’ve been here, that you, Stevenson, come into this gym every morning. You spend maybe ten minutes on the heavy bag, ten minutes on the light bag, and about ten minutes playing with the hand weights. Then you grab a quick shower and head out for breakfast.”

Stevenson glanced at the men around him then over to Blondie before returning his gaze to Starsky. “Yeah? So what?”

“Now Cadet Hutchinson here,” he pointed at Blondie, using his newly realized last name. “He gets here about an hour before you do and spends at least thirty minutes on that heavy bag. He then does fifteen minutes on the light bag and fifteen minutes on the heavy weights. Ya know, he bench-presses about 175 to 200 pounds, without a spotter.”

He looked at Blondie, pointing a finger. “Not a smart move, my friend.” Dave turned his attention back to the Neanderthal and his group.

“Then, when he’s done there, he spends a little time with the hand weights before running twice around the mile track out there.” He pointed to the window behind him, indicating the outside as he began to stand.  “What you called ‘skinny’ is actually very strong and athletic.”

Dave stepped off the bleachers and moved towards Stevenson. “So, based on my observations, if you were to try to toughen up Cadet Hutchinson here,” he drew himself up to his full height, sticking his hands in his pockets, “he would more than likely…kick your ass!”

A nervous grumble echoed thru the group of on-lookers as Dave slowly walked over to stand in front of Stevenson, staring up at him. “And if he didn’t…I would.”

The two men stared at each other until the growing tension was broken by a shrill whistle. “Okay, ladies! Line up!”

The sergeant’s command sent the other cadets scattering as he walked up to the two men. “Is there a problem here?”

“No, sir,” Dave said, still staring at Stevenson. “We were just discussing observations.”

The sergeant looked between the two men, knowing that something was going on. “Well, I want to observe both of you getting your asses in line.”

“Yes, sir,” came the response from both men as they moved to find their places. The sergeant had a look on his face that told Dave he’d be keeping an eye on this group.

As Dave moved to his place, he lost sight of Blondie. His last name is Hutchinson, he thought. Now I just have to find out the rest.

The class was split into smaller groups with separate instructors and, concentrating on the session, Dave didn’t have a chance to interact with Hutchinson again.

Now, at the end of the class, tired and sweaty and wanting nothing more than a hot shower, Dave was gathering up his books when he felt a light tap on his shoulder. Turning, he came face to face with those bright blue eyes and shining smile and was instantly captivated.

“We, uh…we haven’t been formally introduced.” The smile turned shy as the other man extended his hand. “My name is Ken…Ken Hutchinson.”

Clasping the offered hand, Dave said, “Starsky. I’m Dave Starsky.”

And between the meeting of eyes and the touch of hands, between one breath and the next, Dave knew.

He felt it, a sense of right, a sense of trust, a sense of belonging. It infused itself throughout his body, and sent a wave of calm through his mind. He felt it in his heart. He felt it in his soul. And he saw it in those eyes, in that smile.

He had found his place.

He was home.