Chapter 1: Cover art by Bdonna
Chapter 2: A Gaslight Friendship - the story
London, that great city, smelled. It smelled of coal and ordure, and of a thousand foodstuffs. It smelled of the cargoes unloaded at its docks; it smelled of tobacco and perfume.
In a small room, stifling with the heat of a badly vented coal fire in a cramped grate, it smelled of sweat and blood. Mary Connor, born in Derry but brought to London as a small child, murmured over her rosary and blinked against the tears in her eyes, grateful for the silence in the room now, and ashamed of her gratitude.
Nelly Simpson, one of Mary's lodgers, was the one who was silent now, held up in the arms of a dark haired man whose face was drawn with sadness. By the small bureau a tall, blond man stooped over a basin of water turned brownish red with blood, his head bowed with the weight of failure. Beside the basin, wrapped in a portion of ripped sheet, the child that had killed Nelly with its coming lay silent as she, but unmissed and unmourned, until the blond man gently laid one hand over its tiny skull. He dressed in the shirt he'd stripped away while he tended to the dying woman, and turned to the man sitting at the head of the bed. He held Nelly dead as he'd held her still living while her breath and strength ran out with the blood.
"I'm sorry for your loss," the doctor said. He rolled down one sleeve, unaware of the smear of blood that lay over it. He wouldn't have cared even if he had noted it. He was well off enough to afford a laundress, or a new shirt if it came to that.
"It's not precisely my loss," the dark-haired man said. At the blond's raised eyebrow, he shrugged ruefully, easing himself out from under his burden and laying her gently upon the now filthy mattress. It was as well it was only cheap straw, dragged from Nelly's own bed by the practical Mary. It would need to be burned. "I mean, I'm not her husband, or her lover. She was a friend, but nothing more."
"That's the case, Doctor," Mary said. "I have my suspicions about the father, and the blackguard has been gone these many months. But Mr Michaels is a good friend, to that poor girl, and to me."
"Ah. I see." Although he didn't really.
"About the bill," Mary said doubtfully.
Michaels straightened at that, and his eyes flashed like a summer storm. "I told you, Mary. I'll arrange it. We'll take a collection." His gaze rested on Nelly. "Although what we'll pay for when the doctor did no good and the room looks like a shambles is beyond me." His voice was sharp, and when he was done an uncomfortable silence hung in the air.
The doctor reached for his coat. He should, he knew, protest the honour and competency of his profession, but he didn't have the heart when he agreed so completely with Michaels' judgement. "I'll send the bill here, Madam," he said to Mary. "I am truly sorry." He gathered up his bag and shut the door behind him, walking past two teary-eyed young women in their night attire huddled together in the little parlour. He had reached the street below and was contemplating the walk home, cold and probably perilous at this time of night, when a voice from the hall above called out, "Doctor Hutchinson!"
It was Michaels. Hutch turned wearily. "Yes?" It was a shorter answer than civility might require, but he was tired and heart-sore.
The other man clattered down the stairs. He wore his coat also, and held his hat in one hand. There was a smile on his face, apologetic and abashed. "I'm sorry. Truly. I know that you did what you could."
"But it wasn't enough."
"You tried. It was wrong of me to be ungrateful."
The shadow of a smile appeared on Hutch's face. "It's a hard thing to watch, what happened. I can't blame you for being angry."
Michaels had very blue eyes, and his gaze was gently enquiring. "I've been banished so that Mary can lay out that poor girl. Permit me to accompany you, help you with your bag? I believe that your way lies past the Thunderbolt?"
"The theatre? Yes. I'll be more likely to find a cab there, even if it's not so far from there to my own lodgings."
"Then we could travel together," Michaels suggested. "I don't know about you, but I'd be grateful for a little company."
Hutch nodded. Why not? They had both fought for the young woman dead upstairs in their way, and both lost. It was a bond of sorts.
"By all means," he said, and meant it.
Somewhere, a clock tolled three. The air was sharp with cold and they set out briskly. For a time the only sound was that of feet on the cobbles and the noises of the city. There were a few other wanderers, but they were ignored. They were of a height, the two men, with Hutch perhaps an inch or two the taller. He stooped sometimes, a habit of both courtesy and necessity.
After a while, Michaels spoke. "Nobody knew, until her time. She laced herself so tightly. Would that have made any difference, do you think?" He sounded diffident, a man who knew that he was perhaps imposing on another but still sought his answer.
Hutch sighed. "It's hard to say. The child was not deformed, but..." He paused. "We know so little, really."
The man next to him chuckled, and Hutch turned his head, surprised. There was little to see in the dim light, except the blurred edge of nose and chin under the now donned hat. The gas lights could illumine only so much.
"I'm sorry. But you're an odd sort of doctor. I haven't met many, but most of them would rather cut off a finger with their own knives than admit to ignorance."
"A man who won't admit his own ignorance is twice a fool," Hutch said acerbically.
The wide mouth broadened in a grin. "Definitely like no doctor I've ever met."
"Well," said Hutch. "There must be some originals in the world, after all."
Michaels' face turned to him, clear-lit for a moment by a stray shaft of light. He was, Hutch thought, a handsome man. He'd seen the face in the better light in Mary's tiny bedroom, but there had been other matters to consider, then.
"And are you expressing all your originality in midwifery?"
That only reminded Hutch of his failure, and he shook his head. "It's not my strength, but I was asked, and I came. I have a position at the Children's Hospital. There's enough lice and pleurisy to keep me busy."
"Not a society doctor, then? But of course not, you live in Bloomsbury."
No, Hutch couldn't quite imagine himself attending upon society's upper tiers, even if he knew that he'd be found acceptable. "No. Although I wouldn't refuse any of the quality only because of their rank. No doubt they deserve attention as much as any other."
"Are you a radical, then?" The question sounded vaguely surprised.
I'm lonely, thought Hutch. I haven't spoken so much in weeks, and I should exercise more discretion with a chance-met acquaintance. "No," he said. "I'm no radical. But the rich will always have doctors enough, and I have sufficient for my wants that I don't need their money." He was aware of his accent, clearly not of London, no more than the voice of the man walking beside him.
Michaels' voice turned wistful. "Sufficient for your wants. You're either very rich or very modest."
Hutch snorted. "I can’t claim to riches precisely, but I'm about as poor as I'm modest."
"That poor," Michaels teased.
Hutch knew that he should regard it as impertinence. They barely knew each other, and Michaels' voice pointed to origins that were humble as well as foreign to London. But Hutch never had been good at seeing things as he ought. He lifted a hand. "That's the Thunderbolt, is it not?"
Michaels' face lit in a smile. "Yes, that's my darling." The smile dimmed. "I'll have to tell everyone of Nelly tomorrow. Or tell Mr Arlington, at least, so that he can pass on the news. He's the manager."
"Nelly." Hutch realised that was all of her name that he knew. "Was she an actress?"
"No." They had stopped and Michaels looked up at the brick and glass. A poster fluttered in the wind like a flag, the glue that attached its lower half to the wall failed and perished. "No, she was a seamstress, and she had a sweet voice, enough to fill out a chorus sometimes. But poor Nelly could act as well as she could fly." He turned to Hutch. "Thank you for your company. Especially after my brusqueness."
Hutch inclined his head. "Thank you. It was good not to walk alone."
He turned to go, and then stopped a moment, but Michaels was gone, turned down some alley to find a side entrance. Hutch sighed. There was no sign of a cab, and he was tired, and his bed would be cold when he returned home. The sooner, the better, then, he thought, and stepped out more briskly now that he was alone than he had when he was in company.
Starsky, being a man of energetic habits, rose early in the mornings, even after late nights. Since strictly speaking he wasn't supposed to lodge in the theatre, rising and dressing early enabled the small pretence that he was merely very devoted to his work, and not at all sleeping on the elderly sofa that was jammed into a corner of the office. Since Starsky's love for the Thunderbolt and all its workings was entirely sincere, Mr Arlington, the manager, was prepared to wink at Starsky's savings on the cost of lodgings.
A good number of the Thunderbolt's employees had contributed to and attended Nelly Simpson's simple funeral, but now life's routines went on. For Starsky, that included selecting some papers and magazines to read over his breakfast. The seats and floor of the theatre often yielded up abandoned items, and Starsky had no objection to discovering old news over his meal.
Seating himself at a bench in his usual chop-house, Starsky perused his trophies. There was another chapter of a serial he was following, society news, and the police reports. An actress strangled, and Starsky's face screwed up in disgust at the tone of the report, which delicately suggested that the poor woman had brought her misfortune upon herself through her unfortunate profession. "What would you know?" he muttered under his breath. It was enough to make a man want to hit something, and with that thought in his mind, Starsky left the remnants of his meal behind and made his way through the streets, past London in all her motley.
His destination was a doorway set below a brick arch. Above the arch was a sign informing passersby that the premises contained Mr B. Brown's Hall of Instruction in the Martial Arts. A peeling poster beside the door advertised a boxing match now one week past. Starsky let himself in, and made his way to the long bar where drink was offered day and night, walking past the grunting, sweaty men at their training. Above him, thuds and the occasional creak of floorboards declared that Signor Giovanni (that gentleman's real name as much as Michaels was Starsky's) was working his fencing students hard.
"Starsky. Even for you, this is early." The voice had the soft, clipped accents of the Caribbean.
Starsky grinned. "One day I'll arrive and you won't be here, and I'll have finally proved that you sleep like any other man."
"Oh, I sleep. I'm merely irregular about it." Mr Brown, also known as the Bear for reasons that he never divulged, smiled. "May I offer you a cup of my premises' very best coffee? Or are you looking for something stronger?"
Starsky shook his head. "I'm going upstairs, but thank you."
Mr Brown leaned his head upon his hand, his elbow propped upon his counter. "Your devotion to your art is admirable, Starsky. Admirable." His tone was teasing.
"I have a great many admirable qualities," Starsky replied.
"So I've heard," Mr Brown said. "Especially from the floor of the Thunderbolt."
"There is nothing like a good swordfight, Bear. It stirs the blood of the gentlemen, excites the feelings of the ladies, and encourages repeat business. Everyone is happy."
The Bear's eyebrows rose in his thin, dark face even as an amused smile curved his mouth. "You're a public service."
"That I am, that I am." Starsky's voice trailed off in distraction as he caught a glimpse of a golden head against the dirty whitewashed timbers at the far end of the room. He saw a profile like a king's on an ancient coin, and pointed out a group of men and one in particular to Mr Brown. "I think I know that man. New here, isn't he?"
"New enough. I'm not going to complain about new faces, especially when they pay their shot. Unlike some I could mention."
"No need to dun a poor actor this early in the morning," Starsky said, and walked to the edge of the rough matting, while Mr Brown, abandoned, shook his head. A small group of men bordered the edge of the mat, watching the two men sparring at its centre. It was clearly a gentleman's agreement, but Starsky still winced as both men took good hits, and stared in unabashed appreciation at Hutch, who was stripped to the waist. There were powerful bodies in plenty to be seen at Mr Brown’s but people who shared this combination of fairness and strength were few and far between.
The bout over, Hutch wiped at himself with a towel and then raised his head to see a familiar face.
"Doctor Hutchinson. I didn't take you for a pugilist."
Hutch smiled. "A bad habit I learned in school and continued into my medical studies. I found I liked the exercise. And you? Do you box?"
Starsky shook his head. "I attend Signor Giovanni's fencing school upstairs. I like it." His mouth curved up in a sly grin. "We credit him with helping to arrange the fight scenes in the Thunderbolt's plays, and I get free lessons."
"A fine commercial arrangement."
"Come and watch," Starsky said impulsively. "Half the hall has watched you, why shouldn't you have some entertainment as well?" His face was bright and boyish suddenly in his enthusiasm.
Hutch looked doubtful a moment, and then he smiled and nodded. "Why not?" he said. "Why not?"
The two men ascended the stairs to Signor Giovanni's fencing school. That was a lesson where Starsky rather irritated Signor Giovanni. There were too many stagey flourishes in his exercises that morning, and Signor Giovanni was firmly of the opinion that there was a time and place for that sort of thing, and his fencing studio was neither.
The Thunderbolt had no pretensions to being in the first rank of London theatres, or even the second. Much of its fare was melodrama, but its reputation was growing, along with its box office. Tonight, it was full, with a good crowd standing at the foot of the stage, and the more expensive benches and boxes full also.
Everything was abuzz behind the scenes, too. Arlington swept the takings away to his back room, to count and gloat, while the leading actors and actresses adjusted their greasepaint and costumes, and Starsky, his paint and costume already done, whipped his foil about in the wings, nearly sick with excitement the way he always was before he stepped on the stage.
To the audience none of this was visible, and Hutch waited on his bench, a cheap programme crumpled in his hand, full of both amusement and misgiving. There was a rustle of silk beside him and a hint of ladies scent. "If it's not my handsome doctor."
Hutch turned, and then stood reflexively. His companion, Sweet Alice, giggled, and then seated herself. "Always the gentleman." Perhaps Hutch's face gave him away, because Alice's expression turned reassuring. "Oh please, sit down. I'm not wanting business tonight, I just want to enjoy the play."
Hutch sat, and Alice leaned confidingly towards him. "There are some of my least favourite 'friends' in the audience tonight. If I might - I know you don't take ladies like me home, but it would be convenient to make you my beau, this evening, just for the theatre. If you don't mind?"
Hutch nodded, a gesture which somehow expressed perfect courtesy and perfect disinterest. "I'm happy to be of service, Alice."
"I know you are, my dear. And I'll keep the dollymops from you. There's plenty of the sisterhood here tonight, and they'll be after your pretty blond head like foxes after a chicken."
Innate courtesy, and some prudence, kept Hutch from observing out loud that he didn't think that it was the head on his shoulders that the 'sisterhood' might be after.
"Oh, you have a programme. May I?" Hutch handed it over to Alice. She fingered it gently, noting some of the harder words and wondering if she might be bold enough to ask Hutch's help in deciphering them. "Is this the first time you've come here?"
"Yes," Hutch told her. "I'm in the way of becoming friends, I think, with one of the actors here. Mr Michaels." He pointed out Starsky's stage name, third down the list of players.
"Is he playing the villain?" Alice asked.
"I believe so. But I've never seen the play, so I can't say. How is your friend?" Hutch asked.
"She's passable, thank you, passable. Oh, this is set in Eye-taly."
"Italy," Hutch said without thinking, before he offered an apology. "I beg your pardon."
"Not at all," Alice replied, her mouth turned up in a charming smile. "You're a proper education." Her finger pointed to the name of the role played by Starsky. "How do you say this?" The two golden heads, one burnished by nature, the other burnished by a touch of art, bent together over the programme to Alice's pleasure, until the musicians struck up something merry.
The noise of the theatre lessened only slightly but Hutch nodded in approval; the piano was a good one with a pleasant tone. Then the curtain rose, upon a rustic bower if the green silk leaves and red roses were any indication, and two young people, one of them a dark-haired young woman of astonishing beauty, declared their undying but forbidden love. The play proceeded in the usual way - stern parents, misunderstandings and apparent betrayals, and villainous machinations.
The machinations were provided by one Count D'Olivio, as played by one David Michaels, and Hutch watched with attention, looking for an opportunity to praise, or tease, it didn't matter which. The entire story was deeply implausible but somehow Count D'Olivio held the attention and even the sympathies of the audience. His bravura performance in his final duel and death throes had some part in this. Hutch might have a beautiful woman by his side, one that he could have had for nothing but a kindly smile even, but for this night he had eyes only for Starsky: for his agility and energy and the broad shoulders and strong face. When the play ended and the performers took their final bow, Hutch applauded as enthusiastically as the rest of the audience, and tried to ignore the hot, tight sensation in the pit of his stomach.
"Oh, that was lovely," Alice declared.
"It was better than I thought it would be. Nonsense, but amusing nonsense, at least." Hutch presented his arm. "If I may."
"Oh, you may, sir," Alice said. The two of them made their way to the foyer, which still boiled with a crowd of men and women. Hutch and Alice stepped their way to the door, and Hutch was bending his head to say some polite remark when Alice's face twisted with anxious distaste. Hutch turned in the direction of her gaze to see a skinny, truculent young man, with the veined, red nose and cheeks of a heavy drinker.
"What are you doing here? What are you doing, eh?" he slurred, his hand reaching across Hutch to pluck at Alice's sleeve and brushing across her breast also.
"Keep your hands to yourself, sir," Hutch snapped, blocking the groping hand and shoving the young man back. He bounced against a pillar and his hat toppled onto the floor.
"Dirty whore. Dirty fancy man, dirty ponce," Truculent declared and took a swing at Hutch, who wholeheartedly took a swing right back, incensed by the insults and by the spoiling of what had been a pleasant evening. The crowd tried to part itself from the fight, some of them nimbly enough, but others were jammed into their fellows or shoved against the walls. Curses rose across the floor as Truculent, too drunk to feel much of the blow that Hutch dealt him, took another swing.
Little Billy Ingram, who sold food from a tray on the floor of the theatre, took one look and pelted across the pit to the back room. "Mr Arlington," he called breathlessly. "There's some toffs having a barney by the front door."
Arlington rose majestically from his chair, and shouted in a stentorian voice that had once reached to the farthest reaches of a bigger theatre than the Thunderbolt, "Jacko! Davey! We've got brawling out the front." Jacko, the backstage gaffer, and Starsky both bolted out from behind the scenes, their running feet banging on the wooden floors, but by the time they reached the foyer, the worst was over. Truculent lay on the floor, surrounded by a pool of vomit, his hat in the middle of it, while other patrons stepped carefully to the door. Hutch leaned against the banister of the staircase, his knuckles bloodied and a bruise starting on his jaw. Alice had retreated to the first riser of the stairs, Hutch's own hat carefully held in her hands where she'd rescued it from the floor in the first fluster of blows.
Starsky bulled his way through the remaining crowd to stop short at this tableau. Hutch lifted his gaze from examining his injuries and, recognising Starsky, looked him in the face with a rueful grin. Even with this vague acknowledgement of the need for apology, Hutch's colour was high, and his eyes were still lit with anger.
"Well, damn my eyes," Starsky proclaimed in mockingly refined tones. "What chance now of attracting a genteel audience?" Hutch's smile twitched wider, and some of the anger melted, but Hutch averted his eyes as if ashamed of being amused.
"Feet, I think, Davey-boy," said Jacko. Since his boots were by now the least disgusting portion of Truculent, Starsky nodded, and the two of them dragged the drunkard out into the street and propped him against the bricks of the wall. Then they re-entered and, somewhat abashed, the pair by the staircase watched Starsky's approach.
"There's some old rags that we could use to wrap your hand," he offered.
"Thank you," said Hutch
"You're a surprise." Starsky indicated the way they should go, and bowed to Alice before fixing her with a flattering look.
"In what way?" Hutch enquired. "Because you didn't expect me to attend your play, or because you didn't expect a boxing match?"
"Oh, that was definitely a surprise. If I'd known I'd have organised a book, or asked the Bear to take the odds. You'd have good ones."
Again, that unconscious duck of the head. "You flatter me." Hutch pressed gently at his knuckles. They were stinging rather badly by now.
"I don't bother flattering my friends," Starsky said.
Hutch stared at him for a moment. "That seems to work out as a compliment," he said slowly, while Alice chuckled and shook her head at the obliviousness of men.
"Of course it's a compliment," she said.
"Listen to the lady, Doctor. I'm glad that one of you has a speedy wit."
They walked into the warren of rooms behind the stage, where the troupe had gathered in a body to share a drink and to dissect the night's performance. Glasses were raised as Starsky led his guests through the door. "David! Davey! Share a drink."
"Soon enough. Make this lady welcome and then I'll join you in a moment." Alice was bowed into the group and seated on a bench, and immediately flirted with. Starsky lifted one brow at Hutch, as if to ask if this was in order. What he saw reassured him and he gestured to his companion to come out into the yard behind the theatre where there was a pump, barely visible in the dark.
"Put your hands under there and I'll work the handle," Starsky instructed. He was in his shirt sleeves and unafraid of the work, and Hutch followed his instructions after he dragged off his own coat. The noise of the group inside was muted and the yard, enclosed by the Thunderbolt's bricks and a high wall became its own small universe; the creak of the pump handle and the rush of water were its only sounds, the two men its only inhabitants.
"That's plenty, thank you," Hutch said. The water was very cold.
Inside, the talk grew animated and excitable. Belinda Scott, the dark-haired actress, and Alice struck up a wary camaraderie amid admiration of each other's appearance, and discussion of such safe topics as the small shop that had recently opened nearby, selling fripperies such as stockings and scarves, rouge and patent medicines. The men poured themselves more gin, and Jacko recounted an embellished version of the fight and the state of the young man dragged out in disgrace.
Outside, Hutch and Starsky waited a moment, both of them unwilling to leave the quiet of the yard to join the noise inside. There was a pleasant peace for both of them in that cold, cluttered yard.
"Since I'm one of those friends that you don't flatter, you may as well call me Hutch, rather than declaring me a medical man everywhere."
Starsky still leaned on the pump handle. "Hutch? What sort of a name is that?"
"It began with friends at school, and I found I liked it better than my given name."
"Kenneth. There's nothing wrong with it. I simply like Hutch better."
Starsky found himself wishing that he could see Hutch's face. There was something in the tone of his voice that declared the subject off limits, and since Starsky had his own share of sore spots, he let his curiosity wait - for now.
"Come in and I'll wrap that for you."
"Who's the doctor here?" Hutch enquired.
"You, of course, but since you're a doctor and not a contortionist I'd best do the honours. Come on."
They re-entered the theatre, but Starsky led Hutch away from the room where the rest of the theatre's denizens gathered and instead led him to a storeroom where cloth was gathered up, and then to another small room where a gas light still burned. The room smelled of tobacco and greasepaint and was cluttered with wigs and costumes.
"Sit," Starsky said, and Hutch sat, trying not to feel a fool that his overture of a more informal name hadn't been returned. He could call Starsky 'David' of course, but without invitation he would feel presumptuous and overbearing. Or was it simply theatre manners that he shouldn't require an invitation? It was Starsky who'd declared them friends first. He felt out of his depth, and disliked it intensely.
Starsky pulled up a stool and carefully and neatly wrapped the rags around the skinned, bruised knuckles. After soaking another rag in witch-hazel and water he wrung it out and wrapped it into a rough pad.
"Here," Starsky said. "Put that on your jaw." He stared at Hutch's big, long-fingered hands, his brows drawn into a frown. "It's to be hoped that you won't take any poison from that young idiot."
"Yes. Yes. Well, thank you, Mr Michaels, for your kindness. I'd best take myself and Alice home."
"Alice especially," Starsky said, with an encouraging waggle of his eyebrows.
"It's not like that. We have a professional connection." Then Hutch blushed, as Starsky burst out laughing, because of course Starsky knew of Sweet Alice. She was a landmark in her way, like the Thunderbolt, or Mr Brown's; she was the charming blonde whore. "I couldn't bed her," Hutch protested. "She has a look of my sister, only in the jaw and the carriage, and something in the voice, but it's enough."
Starsky's laughter died down, but he still grinned broadly. "And the nature of your 'professional' connection?"
Hutch's pride was stung by the amusement. "I do supply her with money," he said with stolid dignity. "She knows a man who makes preventatives, and she is trying to convince more of her - friends to encourage their clients to use them. Anything that lessens the danger of pregnancy..." He gestured at Starsky, one hand waving and open in dismissal and regret. "We doctors are not always so useful in the case of childbirth. And sheaths likely reduce disease also, and I've seen too many cases of the clap."
"Well, good luck to you and Alice. Not too many men around here will want to fuck with a sock on."
Hutch lifted an eyebrow at the blunt vulgarity, but Starsky intended no more than gentle teasing - gentle encouragement even. Starsky watched the handsome face relax once more into that unwilling amusement, and made a decision. He hadn't missed the hesitation in Hutch's voice when he named him Michaels.
"You should call me Starsky," he said. "It's my real name."
Hutch's face was blank for a moment, and then he spoke, in even-voiced, careful enquiry. "Michaels is better as a stage name, I take it?"
"Can't put some damn Jew name on a playbill, now can we?" Starsky said. His face bespoke gallant nonchalance, but his tone reflected his real feelings - bitterness, and anxiety. Everything he'd seen of Hutch had made him hope it wouldn't matter, but hope wasn't certainty.
"It sounds a perfectly good name to me," Hutch replied, with that same even voice. "As good as David."
"As good as Kenneth?" Starsky asked, mischief and relief lighting his eyes.
Hutch passed his hand over his face. "Far superior to Kenneth," he said feelingly. "Far superior."
Hutch's practice languished slightly over the next few months. He punctiliously attended the children of the hospital and made meticulous notes of his observations, and he had a notice painted of the hours when he might be found in his rooms. But outside of those hours, he seemed to spend a great deal of time at the Thunderbolt, or Mr Brown's, or else Starsky would call upon him and often as not spend the night on the couch in Hutch's rooms which were usually far warmer than the back of the Thunderbolt.
One afternoon Hutch walked to the Thunderbolt, to find Starsky outside exhorting a man wearing placards advertising the Thunderbolt's latest extravaganza to more liveliness in his performance. The sandwich man shook his head - he considered that enthusiasm was an imposition given the pittance he was receiving for his work.
"Hutch!" Starsky called, his hand waving in the air. "Now look, see, that's the sort of clientele we want," he said to the sandwich man, taking off his hat to bow with a flourish before two giggling maidservants. "Charming ladies, wishing a pleasant experience of spectacle and drama." The girls passed on, and Starsky's soft-brimmed hat returned to his head with another flourish.
"Hard at work, I see," Hutch said. "Do you wish some food?"
Starsky's eyes lit up. "There's an excellent pie-man not so far away. Let me lead the way."
"You know that his food is probably cat's meat, and I don't mean meat fit for the cat?" Hutch grumbled.
"You're a cynic." Starsky waved the man with his unwieldy boards upon his way and, with one last check of the posters freshly pasted on the walls of his beloved theatre, spun on his heel with irrepressible energy.
"Now there's a word that I wouldn't expect to hear from you." Hutch's face twisted in amused disbelief.
"A man who reads is a man fitted for the world."
"I don't disagree with you. I just didn't expect that philosophical treatises were abandoned so often in the theatre."
The pair of them paused for a moment, to watch a monkey dance to a hurdy-gurdy played by a thin-faced girl. Hutch flicked her a coin which was caught out of the air by the monkey and deposited somewhere amongst the girl's thread-bare skirts.
Starsky shook his head. "I think that you're a cynic and then I see you do things like that. That was a ha’penny performance, not a shilling's worth."
Hutch shrugged. "I had it to spare."
"So I see."
They passed a small shop, the one that the girls at the theatre often patronised. The display in the tiny window today was one of patent medicines, and Hutch stopped to examine it with distaste. "Quackery," he declared. "Promising the moon and the stars."
“Everyone needs hope,” Starsky said.
“So long as it’s not fed to you with a dose of poison,” Hutch said. “Adulteration is a curse.” He began to enumerate recent scandals, while Starsky nodded his head and made listening noises until his head was lightly buffeted and his hat went sailing some three feet in front of him to land on the pavement before his boots.
“That is no way to treat a man’s hat!” Starsky protested, as he bent to rescue it from the rough ground.
Hutch wore a smirk. “I needed to regain your attention. You just agreed with me that alum in bread was a good thing.”
“And it isn’t?” Starsky hazarded, his face twisted into small boy innocence.
“No,” Hutch said with grim indulgence. “It isn’t.”
Hutch’s own sombre, serious hat still sat firmly upon his head and Starsky seriously considered knocking it off in its turn, but a delicious, savoury smell wafted from across the street. Starsky hauled his friend over the road, the pair of them dodging traffic and horse manure with equal dexterity. Pies bought, Starsky surveyed the small dribble of gravy at the side of Hutch’s mouth with satisfaction. “Told you they were good, didn’t I?”
“Passable, passable,” was all the agreement that Hutch would offer, and he wiped the gravy away from his mouth with a finger and then licked it, because the pies were good. He stared out over the street and then straightened from his slouch against a wall. “I don’t believe it!”
“Don’t believe what?” Starsky asked, but he was ignored and abandoned as Hutch waved an arm in the air and shouted out across the street.
And Jack Mitchell, who had been searching down this street for Hutch because he had nothing better to do in London this day, grinned like a lunatic and made a dash across the road that nearly saw him crushed between two drays, before he and Hutch grabbed each other by the arms, and greeted each other like the old friends they were.
Jack Mitchell was a man in a hurry, a mad hurry even, to experience all that London had to offer – sights, food, drink, dancing and song; and he swept Hutch up in his wake, on a wave that had built from the quiet shoals of childhood neighbourliness to the deeper waters of study together in the hospitals and medical school in Edinburgh, and travels on the Continent.
Now Jack cheered and booed with the noisiest of the crowd at the climax of the Thunderbolt’s latest, as ‘My Mother’s Secret’ was revealed amidst declamation, shrieks and an earthquake. He and Hutch then made their way backstage.
Hutch perched his hip against the edge of the ancient chest of drawers in the tiny cupboard that Starsky used as a dressing room. He was halfway out the door and could see down the hallway to where Jack was conducting a loud flirtation with Belinda through her closed door.
“You don’t mind?” Hutch asked quietly. He’d had an idea that Starsky entertained a soft spot for the ‘Bolt’s reigning beauty. Certainly, he’d been permitted to call her Vicky, her real name which wasn’t used because Arlington feared that it might indicate disrespect towards Her Majesty. Vicky was happy enough with her stage name, and indeed had earlier declared that she might use Belinda all the time. Jack, Hutch noted, still addressed her as Miss Scott, his faint northern burr more noticeable under the influence of the brandy he’d drunk.
“Vicky’s a sweetheart, but she’s not my sweetheart,” Starsky said, his hands speedily wiping away greasepaint to show his own face. “But I hope she knows what she’s doing.” He stopped short, aware of the implicit criticism.
Hutch’s head bowed, just a sliver of that visible to Starsky in the spotted mirror. “I hope so, too.”
“He worries you, doesn’t he?” Starsky turned in his chair, his voice low as he asked the question. Not that Jack would have heard him; he was laughing uproariously at one of Vicky’s jokes.
“He’s not himself. He’s...” Hutch paused. “Awkward. Louder than he ever was. Forgetful, sometimes, and Jack has the sharpest mind I ever saw.” Jack Mitchell was also often a man clearly in pain and struggling to pretend otherwise. But at that point, Jack, gently and tactfully repulsed by Vicky, turned towards Starsky’s dressing room, and Hutch stood, leaning his head into the narrow passage. “Turned you down, did she? I can’t blame her.”
Jack grinned, his cheeks red with amusement and drink. “I am slain, and now I must moulder in my grave. Unless I’m pickled first, and I know just the place, especially if we have no ladies to accompany us. I take it that there are no ladies?”
“There are no ladies, Jack. You’ve scared them all away.”
Jack waved one hand expansively before he draped it across Hutch’s shoulders, while the other lifted a flask to his lips. Jack took a hearty draught and said, “Then I know exactly the place. And what about you, Starsk. Will you come with us?”
Hutch smiled, but with his face turned away from Jack his expression was pleading. Starsky smiled in his turn, ignoring his irritation at Jack’s appropriation of Hutch’s nickname. “Take us where you will, Mitchell.”
Jack had spent some weeks in London before he’d received the letter from his sister (via Hutch’s mother) telling him of his friend’s address, and he’d used them well. He’d had other letters, letters that he still had sufficient caution to have burnt, and one of them mentioned a public house that he was quite interested to visit.
It was a boisterous, amusing cab ride.
“You know how to throw your money around, Mitchell,” Starsky said.
“Ah, well that’s because I shan’t miss it.”
Hutch, uncomfortably wedged in the middle of the carriage, said above the clatter of the wheels on stone, “ I was often pitied as Jack’s poor friend.”
“I’ve not gained any idea that you were ever poor,” said Starsky, with a sudden, clear memory of the precarious times after his father’s death, and cold rooms in a small Birmingham house.
“I never was,” Hutch said dryly, and Jack’s voice rose in the wild giggles that took him sometimes, and that always made Hutch’s neck and shoulders tighten. Starsky, jammed into the corner with his arms crossed against his chest, impulsively squeezed Hutch’s arm. He was jealous of Jack Mitchell, and his money and his long history with Hutch, and he wasn’t a man in the habit of lying to himself about such things. When Hutch’s stone-carved angel’s profile relaxed into something more humanly soft, Starsky savoured the small triumph.
The cab drew to a stop, and Jack rather imperiously requested the driver to wait for them, with a generous retainer and the promise of more. Then he led the way down a narrow alley to a shut door where a man stood guard. He was short and leathery-skinned, with the shoulders and whiskers of a badger. “Miss Fanny sends her regards,” Jack said, handing over several coins, and the man smiled broadly and opened the door with the dignity of a footman in the grandest of homes. The previously muffled noise of music and merriment burst out into the alley, to be enclosed once again with the three men who entered the building.
It was, at first sight, like any other pub or hall. There was a bar, where drinks were served. There was a sweating man, playing something loud and rhythmic upon an upright piano. There were men, and ladies who wore less than respectable ladies might wear, and couples dancing together.
Jack, knowing where he’d brought his friends, merely grinned and marched up to the bar to shout above the din for brandy, and good brandy. Starsky, accustomed to the airs and attitudes of people wearing a costume, realised what sort of a place they were in before Hutch and turned to his friend in embarrassed confusion.
“Hutch,” he hissed, suddenly aware as he wasn’t always of how there was seldom any space between the two of them. “This is....” He stopped. He didn’t have the words to describe where they were. “These are not ladies.”
Hutch, meeting the eye of a strong-faced woman wearing a dress with a decorously high neck which hid an Adam’s apple, and a scandalously high hem which revealed well-turned ankles and calves, made the connection almost at the moment that Starsky spoke, and blushed scarlet.
“I d-didn’t realise,” he stammered, before pushing his way through the throng to grab Jack by the shoulder. “Why did you bring us here!” he hissed.
“It’s as good a place as any,” Jack said, with an easy geniality that was supported by a stiff spine of challenge. “You didn’t used to be such a prude.”
“That was Paris and ten years ago. I have a position at a charitable hospital, damn you! And what about Starsky?” Hutch kept his voice low with an effort.
Jack took a gulp of his drink. “He’s an actor, and not likely to be that innocent or that ignorant.”
Hutch’s grip on Jack’s shoulder gentled, despite the anger in him. "Jack. We should go."
Hutch's persuasive tones left Jack unaffected. He was here, and here he planned to stay. "Should? What's this talk of should? But you're welcome to leave, if you must."
Stymied, and concerned, Hutch found Starsky at his elbow. Jack smiled.
"Starsky. Hutch is worried that your gentle sensibilities will be offended by this den of debauchery."
Starsky was all nerves, but determined not to show it. It had occurred to him that in this mood that Jack wouldn't care what scene he made, and Hutch's uncommon fairness made him noticeable. Behind Jack,who leaned against the bar like it was his last support, two men, both in their proper male attire, kissed passionately. Starsky noted the fact, noted the start of feeling in him at the sight, and determined to deal with whatever that feeling was later. For now, Jack must be managed, and they must all be spared what embarrassment was possible. "Debauchery doesn't offend me, Mitchell. But these aren't quite the ladies you promised us." He lifted his eyebrows in deprecating humour while Hutch moved around to Jack's other side, so that he was bracketed between the two of them.
Jack's hand gestured at the crowd. "There are plenty of ladies. Short and tall, dark or fair. Or gentlemen, if you prefer." He leaned conspiratorially and spoke into Starsky's ear. "If you listen to the vicars, a man who lies with a woman outside of wedlock is damned already. Might as well be hung for a sheep as for a lamb."
"I'm not one for vicars."
"Oh, whatever you wish. Your preachers, with their sheep's eyes and their ringlets. They spoil a man's fun with half a sentence, too, I don't doubt." Jack lurched from the counter, exclaiming, "Sweetheart!" to a slender young man. "Come and dance with me!" The two of them whirled into the group of dancers, whispered consultation with each other, and then began a lively jig, while Hutch watched helplessly from the bar.
"Well, this is a fine to do," Starsky muttered.
"Indeed, because it's quite possible that I'll swing for Jack before this night is out," Hutch said viciously. "I'm sorry."
"There's no need.” Starsky could well understand the urge to go to the gallows for Mitchell’s murder, but he kept his tone carefree. “A man can't educate himself merely from books and magazines.” He linked his arm in Hutch's. "Please excuse my attentions," he said softly. "But I think that the lady in the red wig over there has her eye on me, and I fear that I need protection." His face was such a perfect picture of humorous anxiety (only partly feigned) that Hutch burst out in nervous laughter, despite his growing despair at the direction of the evening. At least he could hope that he might keep Starsky's friendship.
"I'll keep you safe. I’m not so sure I can say the same for Jack. How the hell do we get ourselves out of here?"
"We could just buy ourselves a drink," Starsky suggested, emboldened by the anchorage that his grip on Hutch provided. Jack seemed very determined to dance himself out. Starsky had no more idea how to convince him to leave these compromising premises than Hutch did, and Starsky had already decided that he wouldn't abandon Hutch to deal with Jack on his own.
"Aye, just buy yourselves a drink," a voice said behind them, and Starsky turned to see the bartender, a tall, thin, red-faced man with an equally red scalp only thinly covered with hair. He looked irritated, and Starsky dug into his pocket for his money, flustered all over again. "Gin, punch, brandy, ale or India ale?" the man intoned, his gaze sharp and assessing. Both Starsky and Hutch were studied, and accounted strangers in a strange land.
"Ale," Starsky said, even as Hutch said in depressed tones, "Brandy." The mugs handed over, they shuffled to the edge of the bar to sip their drinks and watch the room.
"Thank you," Hutch said softly.
Starsky said nothing. He huddled against Hutch's shoulder and watched as Jack dragged his new friend towards them, and made introductions. "Kester, this is H- " Hutch's fulminous expression pricked Jack's recklessness into something like prudence. "H-Harry," he corrected himself, stumbling over his tongue.
"I'm David," Starsky offered, judging his name common enough and not wanting to strain Jack's powers of invention.
Kester had a soft baby-face and a deep voice that surprised the listener as a result. "David, is it? This must be Goliath rather than Harry, then?" He looked at Hutch appreciatively, and with clear innuendo in his voice.
"And that would be your concern, how?" Starsky said, his irritation at this ridiculous situation sounding like sulky jealousy.
Kester laughed. "Good on you, friend. You stake your claim, or the whoresons in this place will carry him away from under your nose before you know where you are."
Jack cackled, while Hutch briefly hid his face in his palm. "Jack," he suggested. "Perhaps you and your friend..."
"Never say it. I want to dance!"
"For now at least," Kester said with a saucy wink, and dragged Jack away into the fray once more. Hutch waited, feeling like a fool, angry with Jack, and always aware of Starsky standing at his shoulder, leaning in occasionally to make quiet jokes and comments. It half stopped Hutch's heart, and was half a shame-faced relief, when Jack dropped to the floor and didn't rise again. Hutch started forward, and turned his friend over. He was pale, and his eyelids drooped, and one hand shook when he tried to lift it.
"Damn fool," Hutch proclaimed, and hoisted Jack across his shoulders, dearly hoping that nothing disgusting would happen in the process. His clothes safe for the nonce, Hutch stalked grimly towards the exit, to ribald catcalls and some genuine appreciation at the picture presented. "Greedy!" one man called. "Gets to take two beauties home this evening."
"Kester," Starsky said, with a small salute, "it's been a pleasure."
"Not enough of one. Tell him to come back when he's slept it off. And don't be shy to bring yourself and Goliath, either."
Starsky’s 'I don't think so,' was unspoken, and he strode after his friend, hoping that he didn't look too like he was making a blessed escape.
The cabman, for a wonder, was still waiting. He eyed Hutch's burden and said nonchalantly, "It'll be extra if he makes a mess of me cab."
"It'll be what you've received already. He's paid you a month's takings," Hutch snapped, in no mood to be trifled with.
The cabman leapt down. "It's the deal or you fine gents can walk home."
Starsky put a warning hand on the cabbie's arm. "We can pay you something. But my friend is right. You've had a king's ransom already." All the strong emotion evoked, and controlled, in the pub now came to the fore, and his eyes glittered dangerously.
"And what would 'something' be, then?" the cabman asked.
"It'll be enough," Hutch said, and bundled Jack into the cab, while Starsky climbed up to sit beside the cabman, since Jack's sprawled condition left little room for a third person. The cabman decided that compliance might gain him that last clutch of coin and drove them back to Hutch's rooms, where a final payment was haggled on and paid, and Jack was laid upon the couch in Hutch's consulting room.
"You'll be all right with him?" Starsky asked.
Hutch, his nerves strained by the evening's events, and his fear of what Starsky had guessed from the visit to the pub, snarled, "And why wouldn't I be all right?"
Starsky met his gaze fearlessly. "I don't expect him to attempt your virtue," he said, as Hutch's stomach dropped away. "Or mine, for that matter."
"Good," Hutch said, and leaned over Jack to push his hair back from his brow, and test the heat of his body. Then he straightened, stiff as a soldier and correct as a deacon. "I should thank you. Again. For your - kindness - in that place."
Starsky shrugged. He bowed his head, shy suddenly. "It isn't a hardship to be kind where you're concerned. Don't worry." He lifted his head once more. "I won't tell anyone."
Hutch let out a long breath. "Thank you. And I..." He hesitated, no longer at all correct, for what correctness could there be in what he was about to say. "And you. You don't have to worry. I wouldn't..." He stopped, his face red with humiliation and distress.
"Why didn't you tell me?"
"Why do you think?" Hutch retorted.
Starsky nodded in acknowledgement. "It's a hard thing to be sure of, and a risky one." He swallowed. "It's not in the every day, is it, a man preferring a man? That way."
"Against the laws of God and country, which means that I'm surprised that it's not seen three times a day on the High Street like other iniquities." Hutch turned away. “For God’s sake, Starsky, just go.”
Starsky took a step forward. “If that’s what you want.”
“Yes. Yes it is. Jack needs care, and we’ve taken enough of your attention for one night.” Hutch considered his options and decided that he wanted tea for himself, whether or not Jack would waken for it.
“Why are you so angry with me?” Starsky asked, irritation coming to the fore after the night’s excitements. “I did nothing.”
“Indeed. You were all patience and respect and I thank you for your effort but you don’t need to task yourself any longer.” Hutch managed to look Starsky in the eye again, growing belligerent with shame rather than confusion. “Don’t try and tell me that it doesn’t make any difference.”
“It doesn’t!” Starsky protested.
“Don’t lie to me.”
“I’m no liar.”
“I’m not having this conversation with Jack here. Go. You know where to find me.”
Starsky glared, too many feelings roiling in him to be expressed. “Tomorrow,” he said.
Hutch waved his hand in exasperated dismissal, and once Starsky was gone he pulled up a chair to sit beside Jack, who lay quietly on the couch.
“You snore like thunder when you’re asleep. You truly did sleep in the cab but not now.”
Jack opened his eyes, and Hutch noted the pupils, how small they were despite how low he kept the gaslight. “How much laudanum do you mix with your brandy, Jack? And why? Are you an addict? Is that what this is all about?”
“Doctor Hutchinson.” Jack smiled, and tried to sit up, but his trembling hand was no use to him. Hutch hauled him upright and they sat facing each other – old friends, old lovers, two profiles cut out against the glow from the gas mantle.
“Look at what it’s doing to you!” Hutch said.
“This, all this was happening before the laudanum. The damned headaches, the trembling, the weakness as if my legs were cut out from underneath me. Something’s wrong, but no-one can tell me what. A little medicine to ease myself – that’s no sin.”
“I’ve enquired of our brother physicians. Old Smithers, my father’s doctor was one. He tells me he saw this once before, and the sufferer died of it, but not before he turned into a drooling invalid who screamed about the pains in his head.” Jack’s hand shot out to grip at Hutch’s wrist. “I won’t go like that. I won’t. I won’t end up in my bed, shitting myself like a baby, and I won’t end up a Bedlamite. This is my last hurrah, Hutch.”
Hutch stared in horror. “You don’t mean what I think you do.”
“Unconsecrated ground. It’s where they’d put me if they knew all, anyway.” Jack lifted his hand to cup Hutch’s face, where it shivered against his skin despite Jack’s best efforts. “I’ve been damning Starsky – you two rub together like pennies in a purse. But still, thanks to him I’ve made the acquaintance of some lovely ladies.” The hand dropped.
“Leave Starsky out of this. Your folly has done enough damage there.”
“He put on a brave show, I’ll give him that. But be careful, Hutch. Didn’t David slay Goliath?” Jack smiled wearily. “Or has he done so, already?”
“He’s my friend, Jack. Or was.”
Jack shook his head, certain that he saw something that Hutch did not. “Still is. Are you his?”
Hutch stood. In front of him was the Jack he remembered from ten years ago – prone to mischief, yes, but serious and perceptive underneath it all. “If he wishes me to be. I’ll get you a blanket.” He left then, to go to the cupboard in his bedroom and find the blanket, and bring it back to place it at the sofa’s foot.
“I’ll be gone soon, Hutch. I’m thinking of a visit to my parents, and a very sad shooting accident.”
“Stop it!” Hutch shouted. “Why do you tell me these things?”
The trembling had finally abated, and Jack stood to lean against Hutch, his weight heavy and a little awkward. “Because you’ve always known all my truths. I wanted someone I could trust with the last one.” He lowered his head, to rest it upon Hutch’s shoulder, and Hutch, his eyes shut, petted the wavy hair a while.
Eugenie Pruitt was a dissatisfied woman; dissatisfied with her life, and her shop, which struggled to make money, and dreadfully dissatisfied with her son, a fact that she never neglected to make clear to him. She felt that men had fallen into degeneracy since the days of her youth, and it was a trial to her that her son was as degenerate as the rest of them. He was nervous and quiet (and hopeless with money, which he wasted on theatre attendance, far more so than even his mother guessed) and here she was fifty-eight years old and with no hope of grandchildren.
Jack Mitchell was today squiring both Vicky and her friend Sara Vance. Eugenie never had been canny enough to hide her contempt for any of her customers, but she had clever fingers for small things like trimmings for hats and hat pins, and also possessed an apothecary friend enamored enough of her fading blonde looks to provide nostrums for her stock at very cheap rates. Vicky and Sara ignored Eugenie, admired the stock of bows and frills, sniffed at the rosewater, and kept up a barrage of flirtation and evasive assurances with Jack, who grinned through it all and was annoyingly suave to both ladies. This was, so far as Eugenie was concerned, further evidence of his degeneracy.
When Starsky entered the shop in search of cheap tubs of cold cream for his clean-ups after performances, he was greeted with an audible sniff from Eugenie. Besides his involvement with the theatre, she had him first pegged as Irish, and then, once she heard Jack’s exclamation of “Starsky!”, as a Jew. She approved of neither of these ancestries, never mind the notorious immorality of the stage, and stood by with her lip practically curling as Starsky made polite conversation with Sara, Vicky and Jack.
“What do you think?” Vicky asked Starsky of three hat pins she held, all of them decorated at the end with flowers and butterflies fashioned out of fabric and wire by Eugenie’s tireless fingers.
“The red and the blue,” Starsky said, courteous as always to Vicky despite his considerable discomfiture at Jack’s presence.
Vicky smiled. “What do you think, Jack?”
“I think that red and blue would become you immensely What a pity that this fine emporium offers only such modest adornments.” This was said with an arch look at a fuming Eugenie, and Sara giggled.
Vicky, more tactful, kept her smiles to herself, and made her purchases, handing money over to Eugenie’s staring, tongue-tied son, while Jack gave Starsky a look as arch as the one he’d offered Eugenie.
“And have you seen Hutch today?”
Starsky shook his head. “The good doctor has been a busy man these last few days.” He stared at Jack, his face set, but the reproach was obvious anyway. That Hutch was angered and humiliated by Jack’s strange carouse, and avoiding them both, did not need to be spoken.
“Keep chasing him. Everyone enjoys that sensation that they are worth a pursuit, do they not, my lovely?” Jack bowed to Sara, who lifted her carefully plucked brows at him.
“Only if they think they might want to be caught,” she said tartly.
“And that judgement is surely part of the skill of the pursuer,” Jack replied, with a charming smile, only slightly off-set by his need to steady himself against the counter.
“Must everything be a hunt?” Starsky asked, a shade of belligerence colouring his tone. Jack’s comment seemed to be directed towards him as much as it was at Sara.
“Not everything, perhaps. But we all seek, do we not?” Jack said. “Even if it’s only a charming gewgaw for a hat.”
Starsky excused himself to arrange his purchases, and stepped out onto the street feeling something uncertain under his breastbone. He had told Hutch that what he saw at that strange tavern didn’t matter, but that was only because Starsky had somehow separated Hutch from it in his thoughts. Starsky knew that a city the size of London contained all types of humanity, knew that there were men ‘like that’, could even have been amused by the sight, were it not for Hutch, and his clear shame.
Hutch was, or at least had been, ‘like that’. And like that with Jack Mitchell’s clear knowledge, his assistance even; Jack’s indiscriminate pursuit of pleasure disgusted Starsky, not knowing the secrets that Hutch now knew. Starsky’s thoughts and experience of women had always been perfectly sufficient to his needs. He was angry at Jack Mitchell for risking Hutch’s reputation in their visit to that place and, since Starsky was honest with himself, for introducing a new and uncomfortable idea into Starsky’s mind.
“I wouldn’t,” Hutch had told him. Starsky accepted that, despite the freshness of the friendship between the two of them. Their minds and hearts had meshed like two cogs slipping into gear with each other, and he trusted Hutch. But he was confused, trust or no, and he damned Jack Mitchell for his foreign and unsettling images of hunter and hunted.
For now, Starsky thought grimly, he was going to play hunter, although not in Jack Mitchell’s style. Hutch had avoided him long enough, and Starsky was sufficiently sure of his friend’s routine that he would catch him at home. Dragging Hutch to Mr Brown’s to beat some of the nonsense out of their heads would simply have to do.
It was a brisk walk to Hutch’s door and Starsky used the side of his fist to ensure that Hutch knew he was there. The door opened to reveal Hutch in his shirtsleeves still. Starsky sauntered in and sat down on the couch. He surveyed the room: the couch he sat upon, Hutch’s desk, the bookcase under the window with its burden of potted ferns; Hutch himself, who leaned against his desk, his arms crossed in front of him, surveying Starsky right back with an uncertain expression upon his face.
“Have you considered the possibility that you need to hit something? And since I certainly don’t think it should be me, I propose a visit to the Bear’s.”
Hutch ducked his head in brief thought before looking at Starsky with a relieved, almost shy smile upon his face. “There are worse solutions, I think,” he said, and gathered up his coat and hat.
The two of them walked in comparative silence, until they reached the smelly, noisy sanctuary of Mr Brown’s, and sank into their respective physical meditations. They saw nothing of each other until they met in the back room supplied with wash basins and pitchers of warm water which had grown tepid by the time they poured them. Hutch, his blond hair lank and dark with sweat, dunked his head and scrubbed at it vigorously before he rose up again to see his friend smiling and shaking his head.
“One day you’ll have to explain boxing’s appeal. I’ve never worked it out yet.” Starsky was stripped half-naked to wipe away the sweat, just like his friend, and Hutch was careful to look no more than was seemly.
“Because you have room in your head for only one science,” Hutch retorted, and grinned in his turn.
Physical nakedness, it seemed, was easier than everything that Jack’s recklessness had revealed.
Time passed, as it always did, and London rolled on into its future as inevitably as the dirty water of the Thames rolled down to the sea. The papers that Starsky salvaged and occasionally bought discussed Mr Wakefield’s enticement of colonists to far away southern lands. The London and Blackwall Railway opened. More locally, Mr Arlington considered the competition offered by the new entertainment of music hall. Rumour had it (correctly) that Jack Mitchell was making far more headway with Sara than he had with Vicky.
Starsky was upstairs in Signor Giovanni’s fencing studio when the hubbub in the street outside emptied out the rooms. A woman was screaming, “Police! Police! Murder!” vehement and shrill, and the milling crowd gathered around, although the only officer of the law present was a thin and arthritic Parish Constable, who’d been in his job time out of mind. The screaming woman began to sob instead, and pointed at the upstairs window of a house opposite and about four doors down from Mr Brown’s. The Bear himself stood next to Starsky, as the two of them sidled their way through the press.
The woman, plump and greying, had a face blotchy red and white with shock. “Her face, her poor face,” she moaned. The constable, horrified and impressed together by the scene and the deed, sought the victim’s name. “I don’t know. She’d not had the room long. An actress, she called herself.” She pointed to an open door, and Starsky thought of times that he’d walked down here with Vicky, her occasional mention of collecting Sara for some outing or other.
Starsky felt his blood run cold, and he clutched at the Bear’s arm, before pushing his way forward. “Is it Sara?” he called. “Is it Sara Vance?” Then he shoved his way past the constable and ran up the stairs, to the little room at the top with the door left open. The room was tidy. There was a small pot of violets by the window sill; its modest beauty and scent was lost in the greater ugliness of the scene and the stink of urine. The bed was disarrayed, and on it lay Sara, with vacant blood-shot eyes and a face as mottled as the living woman below. A stocking was wound tightly about her neck.
“Holy God,” Starsky muttered, feeling sick. He hadn’t been friends with Sara but to see her like this, dead by violence, unmanned him. He stumbled away from the door and collapsed to sit upon the stairs, his legs trembling and weak. The constable entered the doorway below.
“You know her?”
“Yes, I know her.”
“Then you’d best wait with me.” The man sniffed. “There’s one of the new police on his way. He’ll want to talk with you.”
It seemed that there was nothing but talking attached to the discovery of Sara Vance. Half of her neighbours wanted to talk, even though most of them knew nothing of her. Starsky gave his name and such information as he could to the police. That information included Jack Mitchell’s name, not without misgivings on Starsky’s part, but Jack was very possibly the last person to see Sara alive. Unpleasant suspicion bubbled at the bottom of Starsky’s mind. He couldn’t imagine that Jack could do such a thing, but what sort of man would? Casual violence was common and God knew Starsky had dealt it himself, but there was something dreadful in the use of the stocking. Starsky had used his fists before now, and he could at least understand how a man might put his bare hands on someone in rage or fear. But Sara’s throat, with the ligature pulled so tight and also so neatly, almost terrified him.
He was set free of discussion eventually, the police constable and the parish constable alike eyeing him as a suspect, but with no evidence against him that was the end of that. He returned to the Bear’s and swallowed down a brandy, offered at the Bear’s own expense with a sympathetic expression and a quiet voice.
“It’s a fearsome thing,” the Bear said.
“That it is,” Starsky replied, feeling the brandy as a hot thread running down his throat. “God.” He looked at Mr Brown’s dark, thin face and lifted his glass. “To poor Sara.”
The Bear lifted his own. “To the lady,” he said, but he had only time for a sip. The news of the murder had excited his clients into a thirst for both gossip and drink, and Starsky thought that he might hit someone if he had to listen for too long. Instead he left and made his way back through the streets, stopping outside the Thunderbolt and unwilling for the first time he could recall to go inside. Sara’s death was the second loss to the company in less than a year. And thinking of that led his thoughts straight to Hutch, and his footsteps straight to Hutch’s door.
Hutch had been out since very early in the morning at the hospital. There was scarlet fever there, and two little children likely to die of it, and Hutch was tired and melancholy when he returned to find Starsky sitting disconsolately on his doorstep. Starsky lifted his head at Hutch’s approach, his face drawn and pale.
“What’s wrong?” Hutch said in alarm.
“You remember Sara? Vicky’s friend.?”
“She’s dead. Murdered.”
“Not to poor Sara.”
Hutch, not a man of religion, let this blasphemy pass and lifted Starsky up by his elbows. “Come inside, and tell me what you know.” He kept his hand on Starsky as he directed him inside and onto the sofa.
“I was at Mr Brown’s. And Sara’s room was only a few doors down. I saw her, Hutch. God, I saw her face.” His second brandy of the day was placed in his hands, and Hutch sat beside him, gently taking his wrist between his fingers with a professional air.
“You saw her? That must have been shocking.” Hutch noted the agitated pulse, hardly surprising in the circumstances.
“She was strangled, with a stocking wrapped around her neck.” Starsky looked into Hutch’s face. “Like those other women, in the papers That’s three. Three of them, and one is poor Sara.” Hutch said nothing, but his fingers curled around Starsky’s wrist as if to hold him steady – a friend’s grip rather than a physician’s.
Starsky threw back his brandy and then looked down at Hutch’s hold at his wrist. Hutch’s hand was warm and comforting upon Starsky’s skin, and with a pang of guilt, Starsky realised that Hutch would very likely see giving Jack’s name to the police as a betrayal. He’d said nothing more than that Jack was a friend of Sara’s and might have known when she was last alive – but in such a case, there would be a hunt for answers, and maybe for scapegoats. He remembered the look of the two constables and shivered.
“Hutch. You know that the police will need to make enquiries of Jack.”
Hutch frowned. “Yes.” He stood, taking Starsky’s glass and placing it upon his desk. “Did you tell them so?”
“What else could I do? He was with her last night. Everyone saw them leave together.”
Hutch’s head lifted. “You think...” He stopped, and swallowed, aware that he might stutter if he didn’t take care with his next words. His voice was hoarse when he did speak. “You don’t truly believe that Jack could do such a thing.”
The comfort between them was gone. Starsky stood. “No, I don’t believe it,. I don’t want to believe it, but someone did it. Jack might know something that might help. That’s all that I’m saying.”
“He’s a good man,” Hutch said through a tight throat.
“The world doesn’t know him so well as you do,” Starsky said sulkily. Hutch turned scarlet with mortification, and Starsky stumbled over his brandy-heavy tongue. “I didn’t mean it like that, I swear. God damn it!” he cursed, wishing that there was something he could hit.
“I should go and see him,” Hutch said, picking up his discarded hat and holding it uselessly in his hand. “Someone should be with him.”
Someone should be with you, Starsky thought, not entirely sure what Hutch would find when he went to Jack. He stood on legs that felt hot and strange from the liquor and the shock. “I’ll come with you,” he offered, noting the time and sighing. There was a performance at the Thunderbolt tonight, and Starsky had a small but pivotal role.
Hutch stared at him a moment, searching out his motives and, seeing more concern than curiosity, he smiled. “If you wish. Thank you.”
They set out for Jack’s rooms, Hutch more than willing to spend money on a cab, even though it was on some busy streets scarcely quicker than walking.
Starsky stared around him when they reached their destination, feeling definitely shabby and a touch gaudy. Hutch’s plain black coat looked less out of place “I begin to see why you felt poor next to Mitchell.” Hutch had set himself up in comfortable but homely rooms, and Starsky couldn’t imagine him in the houses around them, but Hutch started forward with total assurance and banged at the door of a building that was surely too grand to be called lodgings.
It was opened by a nervous young man. “I’m here to see Mr Mitchell,” Hutch said. It was affable but also somehow inexorable, and the door opened wider to let Hutch and Starsky inside to a comfortable suite of rooms that Jack had rented since soon after his arrival in London. There were raised voices coming from a room that served as Jack’s sitting room, and Hutch entered immediately, precluding any effort on the part of Jack’s nervous man servant to announce him.
“Hutch. Thank God,” was Jack’s exclamation. There were two constables there already. The room was dark – the curtains had not yet been drawn, and it smelled, the air filled with scent of drink and tobacco and something that Starsky only knew was unpleasant, but that Hutch instinctively identified as sickness. “You’ve heard of poor Sara.”
“Starsky told me,” Hutch said.
“These gentlemen are O’Rourke and Higgins, of the London Police. And they seem to think that I had something to do with that poor girl’s death.”
O’Rourke had a high-coloured, almost translucent skin, and an Irish accent. “And you would be?” he asked.
“I am Doctor Hutchinson. I’m this man’s physician, and an old friend of the family.”
Starsky leaned against the wall, one eyebrow raised. Hutch had occasionally steadied Jack as he tripped, and once directed his head while he vomited, and that was all the doctoring he’d seen practiced. And he’d seen cold anger in Hutch sometimes, but he’d never seen the icy hauteur practiced now. It blew a chill wind through him.
“And your business here, sir?”
“A gentleman may visit his friends.” Hutch put a subtle emphasis on ‘gentleman’, but it wasn’t too subtle to escape O’Rourke, whose fair skin showed a flush well.
“I must ask you to leave, sir. In the matter of murder, even a gentleman may have to put up with some inconvenience.”
“Oh for God’s sake!” Jack burst out. “These are my rooms, and my friend, and unless you wish to clap me in irons this minute, then I say who stays here, not some jumped-up potato eater. I’ve told you everything that I know.”
Higgins shifted uneasily upon his feet, but O’Rourke was a man of both ambition and intelligence. He longed to knock Jack to the floor for his insults but he knew gentry when he met them, and he had two of them to deal with and both of them on their dignity as only old blood could be when questioned by lesser ranks.
“Yes, sir. Thank you, sir,” O’Rourke replied, satirical emphasis on that last ‘sir’. “I will take back my notes to my sergeant.” The implication was clear. O’Rourke would return with reinforcements. “You’ll not be going anywhere, will you, sir?”
“Where would I go?” Jack said distractedly.
Hutch said smoothly “I can stand surety for Mr Mitchell,” and gave his name, and his country address in addition to the town rooms. There were some weapons Hutch wouldn’t brandish on his own behalf, but it was different in defence of a friend.
“Whitfield Manor, sir,” O’Rourke said. “Now that must be a great thing.”
“Not so much,” Hutch said dismissively. “There is Whitfield Hall at some remove from us, in the hands of the Ord family. Take care not to confuse the two.”
O’Rourke nodded, and tried not to break his pencil in the clench of his hand. “I’m not easily confused.” His eyes, as icy as Hutch’s, swept over the men in the room and took in Starsky, still waiting against the wall. “And do you plan to stand surety, too, sir?”
“My family name could hardly add to the lustre of Hutchinsons and Mitchells,” Starsky said smoothly.
With that, the constables departed and once Jack heard the slam of the door he sat down heavily in a chair, exhausted.
Hutch knelt beside him. “Tell me what you told them.”
“For God’s sake, leave it be. They’ll be back soon enough.” Jack scraped back his hair with a shaking hand. “Christ, it’s not as if I’d care that much save for the disgrace.”
“What does that mean? Hutch demanded, before horror crossed his face. “Jack, you can’t mean that you did this thing.”
Starsky started from the wall, caught between anger and astonishment.
Jack’s own face was a picture. “What? No! But when I think of the tale I told them, I’d arrest me. It looks bad enough, but I swear to you, she was alive when I left her. She was alive, and screaming like a fishwife. We both drank too much.” Jack took in Hutch’s careful examination, and Starsky, standing with crossed arms and a troubled face by the mantelpiece. “We both drank too much and damned if I could get it up. Sara took this as an insult to her charms, so I made my departure and came back here and slept like the dead.” He flinched at his words. “I should have brought her back here,” he muttered. “I should have.”
“If you were both so noisy, there must be plenty to testify that you left her alive.”
“Oh yes. But as the fine members of the constabulary pointed out, what’s to have stopped me from returning later to avenge her insults upon my manhood?”
“They can prove nothing,” Hutch said stubbornly.
“It looks bad, though, Hutch. It looks very bad.”
“Looks are not proof,” Starsky said, and was rewarded with a relieved look from Hutch.
“So you say.” Jack leaned his head against the back of the chair. His left leg was trembling. “For God’s sake, get me a drink.”
A small clock upon the mantel began to chime. “Damn,” Starsky said. “I should leave you. The Thunderbolt...” He gestured the necessity of his presence.
“I’ll see you to the door,” Hutch said.
“Get me my drink, Hutch.” Jack’s voice was a whisper, and Hutch bent over him, one hand on his shoulder.
“In a moment. I promise.” His voice was very gentle. Then he and Starsky walked into the hallway. Jack’s servant looked down the hall from his hiding place in a backroom, and Hutch gestured sharply. “Go and attend him. Now.”
Outside, it was barely fresher than the fug of Jack’s room. The day was cool and all the chimneys smoked with coal fires. There was no counting the coals here.
“Take this,” Hutch said, handing coins to Starsky, who stared at the money with confusion and a growing anger.
“It’s too long a walk. I brought you here, I can pay your way back again. You’ll be later otherwise.”
“I don’t need your charity.” The day’s stresses were beginning to catch up with them both. Poor Sara in her mean room was an ugly contrast to Jack Mitchell in his luxurious parlour, and Starsky wasn’t as convinced as to Jack’s innocence as Hutch. Loyalty kept his suspicion from becoming words, but the irritation of restraint just made Jack and Hutch’s show of privilege prick under his skin even more. Tired, and distressed, Starsky looked at the coins in his hand and wondered if he was any less a charity case than the children that Hutch attended at the hospital.
“If it had been me telling that story to the constables I’d be in Newgate this instant.”
Understanding broke upon Hutch. “And it would be as wrong for you as it would be for Jack. Because you would be innocent the same way that he is innocent.” His eyes blazed with intense feeling; he needed Starsky to believe both declarations.
“And Doctor Hutchinson of Whitfield Manor would present himself on my behalf there, no doubt.”
“No doubt about it at all.” Hutch’s voice was a hurt, angry rumble. “My God, Starsky, of course I would.”
The pain in his voice pulled Starsky up like a harshly reined-in horse. “Ah... I’m sorry. But it’s been a hard day, and not likely to get any easier. And to be honest, I didn’t much like what I saw of Hutchinson of Whitfield Manor.”
“I don’t much like him either,” Hutch said tiredly. “Take the money, Starsk. Make it a loan if you must.” His mouth quirked in a weary grin. “God forbid that I should trample upon the Starsky pride.” He grasped Starsky’s arms, as if he was a lover making a vow, and Starsky sighed heavily and let the quick anger go out with the breath.
“Find me later, and tell me how everything goes.”
Hutch nodded. “Of course, and you do the same. It will be a shock to all of them but Vicky especially. Tell her that she’s in my thoughts, if I can’t be there to do it myself.”
They stood so close there, upon Jack Mitchell’s doorstep, each seeking the comfort of the other in the midst of uncertainty and trouble. Starsky smiled in apology and crammed the money into his coat pocket.
“I’d best go. And yes, I’ll tell Vicky.” Then he was gone, and Hutch went back inside to Jack who was being wretchedly sick.
Hutch soothed his friend and arranged water and food for him, before he put him to bed and watched him sleep, remembering other, quite different times. His own exhaustion overcame him and Hutch threw himself on the sofa in Jack’s parlour, promising himself a nap, no more.
But when he woke it was well dark, and Jack, recognising that this truly might be his last hurrah, was gone for one night of glorious freedom.
Sara’s death had no effect upon the performances at the Thunderbolt. They must go on, even if death cast a cloud over the troupe. The crowd was a hard one that night, gossiping about the death through the performance. When the curtain dropped, the small community of the Thunderbolt retired to the warren of rooms behind the stage with a sense of relief.
“Let me walk you home,” Starsky suggested to Vicky.
“If you must. But poor Sarah wasn’t attacked on the street,” she said. Her eyes were still a little red, and her colour was high – there had been a teary grouping of women toasting Sarah’s memory with gin-laced tea before the evening’s performance.
“I know that. But I’d still feel better,” Starsky said.
“Take your greasepaint off first,” Vicky told him. Starsky made his way through the press of people in narrow hallways and wiped away the face of his dissolute character. ‘Always playing the villains’ he thought. If he’d looked like a Hutchinson or a Mitchell, his career would certainly be quite different.
“Davey, my boy.” He turned his head to see Mr Arlington. “Nicely done, nicely done. Have you had any thoughts about my little idea?” Arlington had a plan to present some scenes from Shakespeare – just scenes, to circumvent the fact that the Thunderbolt wasn’t a licensed theatre. His notes, and a scatter of books sat higgledy-piggledy on a shelf next to Starsky’s paint and cream.
Since Mr Arlington was Starsky’s employer, and since Starsky was quite interested in adapting some of the more stirring and crowd-pleasing scenes of the bard, it was understandable that he keep Vicky waiting. And it was understandable that Vicky, overwrought and over-tired with grief for her friend and the stimulation of her work and too much tea and alcohol, should choose to wrap her heavy coat about her and walk home alone. She’d run the risks upon other nights, and suffered no more than an anxious heart and the occasional fright before now.
Vicky was too polite to interrupt Starsky and Arlington. Hutch, who wasn’t at all beholden to Arlington, had no such compunction. But when he arrived at the Thunderbolt, Vicky was nearly home.
Vicky lived in a small upstairs room, accessed from a wooden staircase that crawled up the dirty brick wall, and when the figure loomed at her, appearing from behind the rickety staircase, she shrieked, and stumbled back.
“Don’t.... don’t be afraid, sweetheart. It’s only me.”
“Who?” The light from the gas lamps on the street made no difference in this narrow alley.
Jack sighed, and made an unsteady bow. His head no longer hurt, but his sense of balance was erratic. “Jack Mitchell at your service, lovely lady,” he slurred.
“Jack? What are you doing here?” Vicky calmed somewhat. Jack had always accepted it when she permitted his attentions to go so far and no further, but his appearance at her door in the dark hardly boded well.
Jack stood swaying. “I don’t know,” he said confusedly.
“Oh, Jack. Are you drunk?”
“Not at all, not at all.” This was not absolutely a lie, but neither could Jack be said to be completely sober.
Vicky bit her lip, unsure, and still a little frightened. “You can’t stay here, Jack.”
“I can’t go home. The police are after me.”
Vicky couldn’t help herself. Her hand lifted to her breast; her heart threatened to push its way out through her ribs.
“What do you mean?” She kept her voice low, and soothing. She was an actress, a good one, and she would not show fear.
“They’re fools. Idiots. I wouldn’t hurt her.” Jack held on to the railing of the stairs. “I couldn’t hurt her. Nor you.” His voice dropped coaxingly. “I promise. Hutch believes me,” he said plaintively.
Vicky grabbed at this possibility. “Your friend, of course. Perhaps David will know where he is. You and I can go back to the Thunderbolt.”
Jack frowned, an action invisible in the dark, and considered this course of action. “There aren’t any police at the Thunderbolt?”
“Not a one,” Vicky assured him warmly. “But only wait for me to change my shoes if we must walk back. I stepped in a puddle, and I’ve no wish to blister my feet.”
She walked up her wooden stairs with all the poise of a queen, well aware of the man at the bottom who, drunken and confused with illness as well as drink, peered up at her progress. Jack waited at the bottom and, somewhat reassured, Vicky fumbled at the lock of her door with cold hands. It opened before her and she stepped in, only to scream a second time as a shadow moved in front of her. Her scream cut off in a choked cry as hands closed about her neck, and she tore desperately at the hands with her nails.
The cloud had cleared enough that the full moon could cast some light and Vicky stared with fading sight at the face of her attacker. She knew this man, she knew him, and desperate curiosity burned in her mind just as her throat and her starving lungs burned, even though her heart was frozen with terror.
And then Jack Mitchell, who had stumbled his way up the steps at Vicky’s cry, bellowed his rage and Eugene Pruitt threw Vicky aside to grapple with this infuriating disruption to his grand fantasy. It should have been different – there should have been the power of Eugene’s hands on a beautiful woman, the deep ritual satisfaction he took in replacing his hands with the winding stocking around the broken throat. Instead his fantasy was broken, and Eugene fought back like fury.
The two men struggled together, grunting with exertion, before Eugene pushed, frantic to get Jack off him and to escape from the ruin of his plans as much as from the risk of discovery and capture. Eugene pushed; and Jack stumbled backwards before his hips hit the wooden guard of the steps and momentum neatly flipped him off his feet to send him head first to the alley below. He screamed only briefly, before there was silence.
The silence was broken by Vicky’s struggling rasp for air, and by the hardly less quiet heave of Eugene’s breath. He drew in air with a shuddering, sobbing noise, and, at the sound of voices from the better lit street, cursed and scrambled down the steps on shaking legs and ran.
Hutch had the run of the back of the Thunderbolt and nobody questioned his presence when he arrived just after the end of the performance. He was frazzled and angry and frightened after waking to find Jack gone and a police sergeant knocking upon Jack’s door. After a highly unpleasant interview, Hutch had searched fruitlessly for Jack, knowing that the police were looking for him also – but always one step behind. Finally, he sought the Thunderbolt. It was as likely a place to hunt Jack as any, and Hutch also sought Starsky and the comfort of his company and advice. He stopped short as he approached Starsky’s cubby-hole of a room and found Arlington there with him.
Hutch’s distress was plain upon his face and both Arlington and Starsky cut their conversation short when he appeared at the doorway.
Starsky stood and pushed past Arlington to grab Hutch by his shoulders. “What is it?”
Hutch lowered his head, ashamed suddenly. “It’s Jack, of course. He’s gone.”
“What do you mean, gone?”
“Exactly what I said!” Hutch exclaimed, irritation an unbearable twitch under his skin. “The damn fool’s wandered off somewhere, and no-one knows where.”
Starsky looked at him – at the frown setting hard creases in Hutch’s face, at the tired bow of the head. He felt the tension in the shoulders under his hands, and turned away to make his excuses to Arlington, who raised his eyebrows in distinct curiosity but accepted Starsky’s barely tactful dismissal of their conversation. Starsky took up his coat and hat and hustled Hutch towards the pump yard.
“Tell me what’s going on,” he demanded, and Hutch gave him a short, guarded summary of events that was crystal clear to Starsky. “You think that Jack might have come here?”
“Here is as good a place as any. He made friends here.”
“I’ll be damned,” Starsky said, stopping short. “I forgot Vicky.” Anxious all over again, he turned back into the theatre, asking among those still there where she was, Hutch following in his wake. “Damn it,” Starsky growled. “I told her I’d see her home. Come on,” he said, grabbing at Hutch’s sleeve. “I’ll see that Vicky’s home safe and then we’ll chase your lost lamb.”
The two of them hurried through the cold streets. The clouds had cleared but the remnants of the day’s earlier rain still wet the pavement and made the air chilly and dank.
“She has a room down here,” Starsky said, and they were both about to turn the corner when Jack’s scream split the night. “Who’s that?” Starsky shouted. “Vicky?” The two men broke into a run. There was a flickering light ahead – a man who’d heard the commotion and had looked out his door with a candle in a lantern in his hand. Between that and the fitful moonlight, Hutch and Starsky could see a jumbled heap ahead of them on the ground. Hutch fell to his knees.
“Jack!” he called, his voice breaking suddenly. “Ah God! Jack?” His hands felt frantically for the pulse. He lowered his head, trying to feel a touch of breath flicker across the tender skin of his face. There was nothing, and Hutch’s questing hands found the soft spot on Jack’s skull. The mass hiding deep within Jack’s brain was cheated at the last, not that Hutch would ever know that. He cradled his friend’s body while Vicky’s neighbour stared dumbfounded at these goings on, and asked, his voice shrill and breathless with surprise, if he should send for a constable. Hutch barely heard him.
Starsky had watched only for a second or so before he noticed that the door to Vicky’s room was ajar, the open doorway a dark, silent maw. He ran up the steps, his feet making a great clatter and creak. Vicky lay just past the threshold, dazed and barely able to breathe, and she flinched with her entire body as Starsky lifted her before she realised her safety.
“Hutch!” Starsky shouted. There was no answer. “Damn it, Hutch! She’s alive. Get in here, will you?” Vicky’s hand grasped feebly at Starsky’s coat lapels, and it seemed an age before Hutch set his feet upon the steps. He’d taken the neighbour’s lantern, and set it upon Vicky’s small table before he bent to his examination. The bruises were already rising on Vicky’s skin, dark and brutal, and her breathing was heavy and effortful. She tried to speak, but her voice came out only as a harsh croak.
“Easy. Easy,” Hutch murmured, and lifted her to lay her upon her bed as Starsky hurriedly pulled back the covers. “She’ll need someone, a woman,” Hutch said. “And there must be police.” His face was set. Even now, he didn’t believe that it was Jack all along. It couldn’t be, but the mix of anger and pity in Starsky’s face told him that his faith in his friend wasn’t shared.
“Mary Connor. She’s nearby. I’ll fetch her, and the rest,” Starsky said, and was gone, running the fear and anger out of his body, urgently glad of something useful to do.
Hutch was left alone with Vicky. His hands ran carefully over her throat, noting her winces, but ignoring them out of necessity. “Your voice box feels intact,” he told her with gentle detachment. At the confusion in her face, he said, “You’ll recover your voice. Once the swelling and inflammation heals, you understand.”
Relief spread through Vicky. She had hardly had time to fear the loss of her voice, so little time had passed since the attack, but Hutch’s assurance brought any number of terrible possibilities home to her.
“Jack?” she tried to ask, but she was soundless. Hutch recognised the shape of the name on her lips, and shook his head.
“Don’t concern yourself,” was all he said. The pinched grief in his face told Vicky that Jack was gone, but not the assumptions that her rescuers had made. She laid her hand upon his arm, pale against the dark cuff of his coat, and Hutch laid his own hand over it, assessing her with a professional eye. She was dazed, and the hand that she had laid upon him was very cold, and trembling slightly. There was more swelling and bruising yet to develop from her injuries. He must go and get his bag, or send someone for it once Starsky fetched help. He feared that he might have to perform a tracheotomy. It was an operation he’d seen done, but never directly practiced for himself, and he didn’t relish Vicky being his first. Leeches first, perhaps, to take blood from the area and reduce some of the swelling. And she must have laudanum if she could swallow at all.
And of course, Jack’s remains must be dealt with. Hutch shut his eyes, tears pricking and burning at the lids.
Vicky woke from a fitful sleep filled with fever dreams that had been born out of shock and the trickle of laudanum that she had, with great pain, managed to swallow. Mary Connor sat beside her, her plain, forthright face alert and worried. “There now, ‘cushla. How are you?”
Vicky put her hand to her throat and smiled. It was weak, but genuine.
“Yes, yes, I know, don’t try to talk.”
Vicky tried to rest against her pillows. She turned her head, and saw her hatpin lying on the top of her dresser, the blue and red silk butterfly bright and jaunty against the wood. Her eyes widened and she sat up, straight-backed with shock, and struggled out of bed as Mary made protesting noises and came to her side, taking her elbow.
“Now then, dearie, what’s all this then? You come back to bed.” Mary tugged gently at her arm but Vicky shook her head. She remembered vividly – remembered the distorted face that glared at her as she fought for breath and life. She remembered Hutch’s face, the grief clearly put aside. She remembered Jack Mitchell, and how she was alive because of him, rather than laid out at rest with her stocking digging into her throat. Instead of returning to her bed she pulled out a drawer with shaking hands, to take out a pencil stub and a tiny tablet of paper. ‘To David Michaels’, she wrote at the top, and then added, ‘and Doctor Hutchinson’. The pencil was very nearly blunt, and her writing was thick and pale and blurry, but it would have to do. ‘It was the man from the little shop on Painter Street.’ Then she threaded her hat pin through the paper and handed it to Mary, who read it, her face turning pale.
“Christ Almighty! But I can’t leave you, ‘cushla. This dirty bastard might come back for you. We all thought....” Vicky nodded, but pointed out the door. “Please,” she croaked. “I’ll lock myself in,” she tried to say, but it was too great an effort. Instead, she walked unsteadily to the door and opened it. “Please.”
“I’ll run,” Mary said. “I’ll run, and I’ll come straight back here.”
What Mary Connor said she would do, she did. Taking a gamble, she made her way straight to the Thunderbolt. Even if Starsky wasn’t there, there would be someone who would know, and Arlington was a canny man. So Mary picked up her skirts and ran through the damp, dark streets. There was a fine line of light at the eastern horizon, blocked from Mary’s view by the hulk of London buildings, which had grown to a grey dawn by the time Mary pounded on three side doors at the Thunderbolt in turn before one of them opened for her.
It was Mr Arlington, his plump, shrewd face grey and tired in the dim morning light. “What is it? Is poor Vicky...?”
“She’s well,” Mary panted. “But she has a message for Davey.” She proffered the paper with its pointed adornment.
“He’s here, and his fine friend, and neither of them happy.” Arlington, faced with the loss, however temporary, of one of the most promising young women he’d seen in years, was none too happy either.
“This will relieve the doctor at least. The filthy killer isn’t his friend. It’s some other scum. I must go back. I promised the girl I wouldn’t stay away too long.” And with that, Mary turned back the way she’d come.
It had been a long, fraught night when Starsky quite literally dragged Hutch into the Thunderbolt.
“I should go home,” Hutch said, with no pleasure in the thought. At home there was pen and ink, the better to write to Jack’s family and tell them the news. So far as Hutch knew, there was no-one else in London who would take on the task of telling the Mitchells that their son and brother had died a confirmed murderer. He wondered if they would believe it. He still couldn’t.
“And you can go home,” Starsky said as reasonably as he could, “but you should have something warm in you first. And I should too. Damned if it’s not cold out there.” He put his head in the small back room that served as a rough kitchen. The fireplace there had boiled kettles for tea and toasted bread, and, as Starsky suspected and hoped, a small fire still smouldered. Arlington would have wanted its comfort as much as anyone. Starsky knew where the precious tea and sugar were hidden and he brought them out and stoked the fire.
Hutch slouched in a wooden chair, his arm resting on the bentwood sidepiece, his hand covering his face. Starsky stooped over him, one arm firm across his shoulders, and Hutch did something that he seldom did. He surrendered control and restraint and simply leaned against the solid warmth beside him. There were no tears in him, but his breath shuddered in a long sigh.
"Nothing," Hutch said, which was a lie, and in a spirit of apology he took Starsky's right hand, resting upon his shoulder, and held it in his left before impulse overtook him and he brought it to his mouth and pressed his lips to Starsky's palm. It might be simply a gesture of gratitude. If Starsky were stupid, or generous, he might think that, and Hutch knew that Starsky was one of those, at least. The kiss accomplished he lowered their hands, so that Starsky's lay across his heart, Hutch's resting over it. Then he waited.
Starsky moved; he straightened, he gently removed his hand from under Hutch's, and Hutch shut his eyes. There was the scrape of a chair across the floor and then Starsky sat beside him.
Hutch turned his head then and studied Starsky through burning eyes. “Ignore me. Why I should take the risk of losing you when Jack isn’t yet cold... I am not myself, I think.”
“You won’t lose me,” Starsky declared. His palm tingled, and he rubbed it unthinkingly. “We have a regard between us, and I don’t plan to throw it away for any reason.” He put what he knew into words at long last. “Jack was your lover, as well as your friend.”
“When we were younger.” Hutch turned his head away. "We were close friends, yes, when we were students. He was beautiful in his way, and he was a good man. A good man," he insisted. "I wish you could have known him before."
Starsky refrained from denying Jack Mitchell’s goodness. Hutch was distressed, and there would be time enough for investigation and judgement. But Hutch saw that forbearance in Starsky’s face.
“Jack didn’t kill those women. He did not!” Starsky’s turn to reach out this time, and take Hutch’s hands in his.
“Loyalty is a great thing. But it can be misplaced. It can be abused, without reproach to the one who trusts.”
“He didn’t do it,” Hutch rasped. His head hung low, and his hands did not let go of Starsky’s. They were sitting that way when Arlington found them.
“Rise up, gentlemen! Mrs Connor has brought us news from Vicky.” Starsky rose but Hutch remained sitting. Arlington stepped forward to place a kindly hand on Hutch’s shoulder. “Buck up, Doctor. Your friend is still dead, but he has his honour restored. Look.” He thrust the paper into Starsky’s hand.
“Hutch. Hutch, you were right.” Excitedly, Starsky leaned over his friend. “It wasn’t Jack.” His face grew stern. “Who else knows of this?”
“Just us in this room, and Mary.”
Hutch stood also, taking the paper from Starsky with a shaking hand and holding it close to the light. He inhaled sharply at the message. “If the hue and cry is too loud, he might run. He might get away.” He turned to Starsky and a long look between them confirmed that this must not happen. For Jack, for Vicky; the killer must be caught. He thrust the paper and the pin back at Arlington. “Take this to the constables. Starsky and I will go to the shop on Painter Street.”
The two of the them left, leaving Arlington in possession of the evidence of attempted murder – and attempted theft. He cast a jaundiced eye at the tea and sugar left out but never used. He would need to lock it away. With a shaky sigh, he considered the paper clutched in his hand. After he had dealt with other matters.
Two men, as different in looks as two men might be – but Hutch and Starsky shared the same expression of determination as they strode towards Painter Street. It was full light, or near enough, when they reached the door of the little shop.
“There’s likely a back way out,” Starsky said. “Let me go find it.”
Hutch nodded, his face grim. “Do that – but take care.”
Starsky closed his fingers around Hutch’s arm for a moment. “I won’t be taken by surprise.” Then he was gone, sidling down a dirty alley. Hutch gave him a minute or so, and then pounded on the door. He didn’t even know the name of the man they sought, and he shouted, “Hello the house! Open up!” There was silence – from within the house at least. Several heads popped out of windows to tell Hutch to ‘shut your noise, damn you.’ Hutch banged again at the door and it opened - but the man behind the door was Starsky.
“He’s gone.” Starsky stepped back to let Hutch in, and then his face twisted with anger, and his arm swept the counter, knocking over bottles, and tipping a wooden box to the floor. Its lid broke, and it spilled its contents onto the boards – a single soiled silk stocking, an embroidered garter, some trumpery bits of paste jewellery.
“You’re sure?” Hutch snapped. “He’s not hiding anywhere?”
“No, and that bitch his mother is gone too. They must have made a run for it together.”
But Hutch, as furious as Starsky, had already shouldered his way to the back of the shop and made his way up the narrow stairs to the bedrooms. When he reached Eugenie Pruitt’s room he stopped and stared a moment, before pulling aside the curtain that served as a rough wardrobe door.
“Starsky?” he called, before he pulled out one or two drawers. When Starsky appeared at the door, Hutch said, “What sort of woman leaves with nothing? This room is in order, and it seems to me that everything that you might expect is here. If she hasn’t run off, then where is she? Where is this woman?”
Starsky frowned, diverted by the puzzle from his fury at not finding the killer. He stepped to the window, which overlooked a dirty yard. It was filled with a jumble of junk, and there was a shed, tiny and rickety over an area that was boarded rather than cobbled or dirt. A privy over a cesspit, he realised, and then his gut turned cold.
“Hutch? Hutch, come and look at this.” Hutch joined him at the window, crowding close for a moment for the comfort of Starsky’s warmth and vitality.
“What is it?”
“If his mother hasn’t made her escape with him, if she hasn’t left all her goods behind her, then...” Starsky swallowed. “If he can kill other women, then what about his own mother?
“And?” Hutch asked, uncomfortable with this line of thought.
“If you wanted something quickly out of your way...” Starsky swallowed. “Nobody remarks on a bad smell coming from a privy.”
Hutch put a hand on Starsky’s shoulder, and sighed. “You have a morbid imagination.”
“I don’t think it’s imagination.” Starsky couldn’t even say where the intuition came from, only that he was frighteningly sure of it.
“What do you propose?”
Starsky squared his shoulders and turned to face his friend. “Finding a long stick.”
Hutch barked out a rasping laugh. “Never a stick long enough for that.”
“We can try. Come on. The sooner the better, and if I’m wrong...”
Hutch made his way to the door, and swept his hand out in a gesture of mocking courtesy. “After you.”
Starsky made his way down the narrow stairs, Hutch close behind him, and the two of them reluctantly stepped out into the yard. Starsky looked around him. There was a thin weathered pole – some washing woman’s stick to poke the sheets in her copper. Starsky picked it up, and took a step towards the privy.
“Starsky,” Hutch said. “You don’t have to. We could leave this to the police.”
“I know. But now that the idea’s in my head... she was a sour old bitch, but what if she’s down there? It’s not right to leave her, and it will prey on me. If I’m wrong, then so be it. I’ll have a stink in my nostrils but at least my conscience will be clear.”
Hutch nodded his understanding. “It won’t be pleasant.”
“It wasn’t pleasant to see poor Sarah Vance but I survived.” The yard reeked with the stink, and when Starsky stepped onto the boards they creaked.
“Take care, there” Hutch said, not liking the sound. One board wobbled under Starsky’s foot. He opened the privy door, his eyes watering. “God,” he muttered, and then knelt beside the noisome hole balanced on his knees and one hand, and lowered the stick. More vapour and stench rose with the movement and Starsky regretted his impulse more than ever, but he resolutely stirred the evil brew. The stick struck something – solid but yielding, the way, Starsky thought, that a woman’s body might be.
Hutch, watching from the comparative freshness of the yard, saw the stillness that came over Starsky. “You’ve found something?”
Starsky backed away, gulping for air once he stood on the cobbles. “Something’s down there. And look.” He prodded the wobbly board. “Not all of these are nailed down. The shelter certainly isn’t.” The shelter was no more than a box , and Hutch shoved at it. It moved, and he shoved harder with a strength born of anxiety and disgust, and it tipped over on its side with a rattling crash, leaving that much more of the boards bare.
“Oy,” a woman said. “What am I supposed to do now?” There was a small crowd of the curious gathering. “Shit sharks get a better coat than I do,” said a man.
“Have any of you seen the woman who owns the shop there? Or her son?” Hutch demanded.
“Who, her? Mistress Too Good for the Likes of Us? No.” The woman eyed Hutch and Starsky with an unimpressed air. “Be a good boy and put the privy back up, will you. Last night’s drink wants an out, if you know what I mean.”
“Borrow a chamber pot,” Starsky snarled. “Mistress Too Good might be lying at the bottom of your cess right now.” He bent, fingers prising at the board that he knew was loose. It lifted with little effort, and he and Hutch lifted others with more trouble, cracking one or two. More stink rose into the air, along with the murmur of shocked gossip.
“We need something with a hook on it,” Hutch said.
“Going fishing are you?” asked one of the crowd, and a nervous, appreciative titter passed through the men and women.
Hutch, his nerves stretched to the point where they strummed, marched up to the wit and grabbed him by his waistcoat. “Yes,” he said, “yes we are. Now be quiet, lest you scare the fish.”
“Hutch.” Starsky’s voice was as nervous as the laughter that had run through the crowd. He had begun to strip off his clothes – his coat and shirt and undershirt.
Hutch turned and did the same. “Come on,” he addressed the crowd. “One of you must have something – a grappling hook, or similar.” He shivered as his shirt came off. Starsky hunched his shoulders, feeling the cool air also.
“This is the best you get,” the man who was jealous of their coats said. He proffered an old flat-broom, intended to sweep the cobbles, perhaps. The bristles were worn and uneven, but Hutch considered it might be possible to hook one edge under whatever lay at the bottom of the pit enough to lift it through the buoyancy of the filthy liquid – assuming that the pegged handle didn’t come adrift.
“I’ll do it,” he said at Starsky’s look. “My turn for the noseful of shit.” He grinned, a humourless, feral expression. “Brace me,” he said and extended one arm to Starsky. They locked their hands each around the other’s wrist, and then Hutch knelt at the edge of the broken boards and leaned out perilously and lowered the broom, feeling for whatever it was that Starsky had found. He found it with little trouble. Getting any sort of purchase on it with his makeshift tool was another matter, and Hutch’s face grew red with angry frustration before he made a small noise of triumphant anticipation and slowly, slowly lifted his burden.
The residents of the area gathered around as Eugenie Pruitt, one edge of the broom hooked under an arm, rose to the surface of the cess pit. Her face was smoothed into a brown mask by the filth, her clever hands hung limp, her nagging tongue lay quiet, her dissatisfied heart was stilled. A collective sound rose from the crowd – pity, satisfaction at being present at such a spectacle, and anger.
“Where’s the son?” someone asked. “Where is he?”
“Halfway to America if he has any sense,” another rejoined.
Hutch and Starsky ignored this, faced as they were with the tricky business of dragging Eugenie’s body from its hiding place without spattering themselves all over with the contents of the cesspit. Eventually she was laid upon the ground, curled in the beginnings of rigor.
“It was midnight, more or less when that devil attacked Vicky,” Hutch said. “He must have done this soon after.” He shook himself, as if to shed his skin, and called out, “Water, for God’s sake! Find us a bucket or two, will you?”
Starsky was silent. The bruises that would be seen when Eugenie’s body was later washed were lost amongst the dirt that covered her, but there was no ligature about her neck, which filled him with sickly relief. He sank to the ground which was cold and hard, and sat upon his heels and lost himself in a brief reverie on the nature of evil. Hutch laid his jacket over Eugenie’s body, deciding that he could better sacrifice a coat, and then laid his hand, chilled as it was, gently upon Starsky’s shoulder.
“We have some water. Cold, but we can wash our hands and sluice the worst of the dirt from us.” Starsky turned his head, startled, and they stared at each other, for a moment unmindful of the crowd. Starsky realised that he was suddenly aware of the beauty of a broad chest, that a man’s wide mouth might look as sweet as the rosebud pursed lips of some girl, and he blushed scarlet. To think of such things at all. To think of them here. Hutch only smiled, affectionate and concerned, but oblivious. “Up. We both need to wash. I’ve sent a man for the police.”
The water was cold and stale, but still immeasurably sweeter than the stink which permeated Hutch and Starsky’s skin, and the cloth of their trousers. In the end they tipped the buckets over each other, and then put their shirts back on their cold, damp bodies, while people gathered around the pathetic corpse with its makeshift shroud and muttered and gossiped.
Starsky was about to suggest that they return to Hutch’s rooms, where the unmitigated luxury of a hipbath was available, when there was a hubbub out on the street beyond the yard – shouts and shrieking. The noise grew closer, and one shrill woman’s voice rose clear against the background roar. “Show him what he’s done! Show the dirty beast what he’s done!”
And with that, Eugene Pruitt was dragged into the yard and hauled, kicking and screaming like a wounded animal, to the remains of his mother. One man, smaller than Eugene, but strong, turned his head so that Eugenie’s remains lay in his line of sight, but Eugene only shut his eyes.
Starsky stared at the pathetic figure. He was bruised and bleeding and missing a tooth, and that wasn’t nearly enough for Starsky. He thought of Sara, and of Vicky and her bruised face and swollen throat; he thought of the poor stinking corpse before them and he strode forward and lifted his fist, to find it caught in Hutch’s hand.
“Leave it. Leave him to the judge.” The judge. Starsky knew people who’d stood at the wrong end of a courtroom, and he knew the punishments of England. It still wasn’t enough, and the muscles of his arm bulged as he fought Hutch’s grip for a long moment, and turned to him with a dark, coal-ember anger on his face. Hutch’s own face was filled with sick disgust for Pruitt, and an odd grief. “Leave it,” he said again, and Starsky lowered his arm, as Hutch started forward and shouted to a couple of men who were still dealing blows to stop.
A tall, blond man with the face of a god and the assurance and accents of the gentry, standing there drenched in his shirt-sleeves, was enough of a novelty to reduce some of the noise but Hutch judged that the mood could go against him yet, and he said, in lower, sardonic tones, “Let’s not cheat the hangman of his wage.” This set off a wave of laughter and jeering, but the crowd buzzed with pleasant anticipation now, rather than the immediate urge to pummel Eugene’s face to release their own sickly fear and disgust. Eugene’s assailants held off, satisfied now to merely hold him still.
The police arrived soon after, and the machinery of justice lurched into motion. Eugene was silent after those first wild cries at his capture. He made no explanation as to why he’d broken after nearly thirty years of obedience to his mother, and he gave up for lost his box of treasures; the stocking, the garter, the little pieces of jewellery that he’d left behind and then returned for, his remembrances of great deeds. They were unexplained and unregarded.
“I’m glad that you’ll keep an eye on my rooms while I’m gone. Use my bed, if you wish. You don’t have to sleep on my couch.” Hutch paused at that and then fiddled with the catch of his bag. He had arranged the carriage of Jack’s body back to his family. Letters had gone ahead, and now there only remained the transport of the coffin, lead-lined and soldered shut against corruption. All that was left of Jack Mitchell that his family might see was an envelope with a few heavy locks of hair. Hutch had cut it himself.
“Of course I don’t have to sleep on your couch when you’re not there,” Starsky said with awkward joviality. “What would be the point of that?”
“Just take your boots off before you get between the sheets. That’s all I ask.”
Starsky laughed, but it died away. “You’ll write to say when you’ll be back?”
Hutch nodded, picking at a loose thread on his coat before he shrugged into it. It was a convenience that a doctor wore so much black – it made mourning easier to arrange. “I’ll give you fair warning of my return. It shouldn’t be longer than a fortnight. I’ll go to my own family after I’ve paid my respects to Jack’s people.” One lifted brow suggested that Starsky would need that time to cover evidence of any debauch, but the joke had worn thin for Starsky, now.
“Take care, then.”
Hutch frowned, seeing that Starsky laboured under a burden, but not sure what it was. “It’s the north of England, Starsk. Not the North Pole.”
“I’ll not bring Hutchinson of Whitfield Manor back with me, if that’s your concern.”
“No,” Starsky said. “That’s not my concern.” He stopped, anxious and tongue-tied, unsure how to express himself. Hutch was leaving London to bury his friend, and old lover, and Starsky decided finally that there was no point trying to say things that he barely understood. Action would have to do instead, he thought, and stepped into Hutch’s ambit, face to face with him, chest to chest, his hands resting upon his friend’s shoulders to pull them closer together. Despairingly aware of just how big Hutch was compared to anyone else he’d ever done this with, Starsky kissed him.
Hutch surprised himself more than he surprised Starsky when he stepped back. Starsky flushed in humiliation and an unexpectedly heartfelt disappointment, and began an apology, his chin lifted and jutted so defensively as to give the impression that he thought that it was Hutch who’d given offense.
Hutch’s face clouded with his own embarrassment, and the awareness that his friend had misinterpreted him. Carefully, he closed some of the gap that had opened between them. “No. Don’t apologise. But are you sure?”
“Of course I’m not sure,” Starsky said crossly. “But if a man waited for surety in everything that he did, then nothing would happen, now would it?”
Hutch laughed softly at this, and opened his arms in a gesture that couldn’t be mistaken; after a heart beat’s worth of hesitation Starsky stepped forward once more, his hands closing this time around Hutch’s waist. This kiss lasted longer until Hutch finally dragged his mouth away, although he did not let go his hold of Starsky’s body. Starsky’s face – it was flushed, and softened considerably from his earlier look of ‘do or die’ determination.
“Starsky,” Hutch said, “I love you dearly but for an actor you have an appalling sense of timing.”
For the first time, Starsky actually looked shy. “That was part of the plan. If it went badly, then we’d have time apart to forget. And if it went well, I thought that maybe you might come back sooner from your northern wilds.”
“Are you insulting my home?” Hutch enquired. He didn’t look at all offended.
Starsky’s eyes sparked with warm humour and relief. “And what if I was? If you challenged me to a duel, then etiquette would demand that I had the choice of weapons. And you, my friend, are useless with a sword.”
Hutch smiled a broad, sweet smile, and lifted one hand to gently stroke his thumb down Starsky’s cheek. “It went well, and now I have something to think about on my journey.” Hutch paused, and then asked, “It did go well?”
“I haven’t run screaming from the room,” Starsky told him.
“No, no you haven’t.” Hutch smiled with giddy happiness at the new vista that Starsky had presented to them both. He leaned forward slightly, his cheek resting against Starsky’s, fine, fair hair mingling with dark curls. “I must go,” he said, and reluctantly let go.
“Safe journey to you.” Starsky swallowed, nervous all over again now that Hutch was going. He’d thought that one kiss would be enough to start with and now found it otherwise; if a man could regret the success of a plan, then Starsky was regretting his.
Hutch took up his hat, and his valise. “Walk with me as far as the carriers. We’ll need to make a more decorous farewell there, though.” The regret in his own voice comforted Starsky somewhat, even as it teased him with possibilities – as was Hutch’s intention.
“Yes, of course,” he said. It was cold outside, and dark, being very early in the morning. The two of them walked the distance (Starsky taking his turn at carrying Hutch’s valise, which was heavy) and made their necessarily decorous farewells. From there Starsky returned to the Thunderbolt, to review his scripts and then throw himself into an intensity of rehearsal that startled his compatriots and rather unnerved Vicky’s understudy.
Hutch began a long, weary journey, supervising the transport of the coffin to Euston Station, where he inspected that Jack was respectfully settled in the guards’ carriage before he took his seat. He spent two days travel frequently rattled into headache by the speed of the trains and the smell of coal smoke.
Jack’s father met him at York. Always a demonstrative man, Walter Mitchell had tears in his eyes as he vigorously shook Hutch’s hand, before he took out his handkerchief to wipe at his face and blow his nose.
“Ah, Kenneth. I’m sorry, I’m sorry to be so overcome.”
“You have the right, Mr Mitchell. Please, don’t concern yourself.”
Walter Mitchell smiled despite his distress. “Always a kindly spoken boy. You were a good influence on my son.” His face sobered. Hutch’s face blanked slightly at Mitchell’s assessment; he could never express to this man the influence that he and Jack had been upon each other. “How was he? He was – unwell – before he left, and his mother was worried for him.”
Hutch frowned, wondering how to most tactfully answer. “He wasn’t well in London, but neither of us had any answers. So much for learned physicians.” He made a small gesture with one hand.
“Please, let my man take your bag.” Mitchell’s footman stepped forward and carried Hutch’s valise away, and they walked to the back of the train to deal with the sad freight that Hutch had accompanied this long way.
“An accident, you wrote?” Mitchell made it a delicate enquiry – the recklessness of Jack’s state of mind hadn’t escaped his family even if he’d hidden his despair better. His father’s shoulders were braced for shaming news and, as Hutch related the bald facts, Mitchell’s face grew pinched at the implied scandal. Actresses, a common murderer, Jack nearly defamed in death; none of it offered dignity to the Mitchell family name.
It was a continuing refrain over the next few days, as Jack’s remains were delivered to his family and laid to rest in the graveyard at the little church where the Mitchells had worshipped for at least a hundred years. Jack’s father restrained himself, as did his mother, but Jack’s brother felt the shame keenly. So did Walter Mitchell’s sister, who grieved over the scandal at least as sincerely as she mourned her nephew. Hutch was tight-lipped with anger at the grave side and during the quiet lunch offered to the mourners. “A young woman is alive, because of Jack,” he said to Aunt Nell, with an acerbity that bordered on discourtesy.
She stared at him with uncomprehending hauteur. “But such a young woman, Doctor Hutchinson,” she protested. Hutch thought of Vicky and how she shone upon the stage. He thought of Sweet Alice, who might just as easily have taken Eugene Pruitt’s attention and, stung with indignation, shut his mouth tight against a retort that Aunt Helen Cole should be grateful that it was at least a young woman.
His mother and sister were less than half a day’s journey from the Mitchells, and Hutch made his escape from the grieving house. It was a novelty to regard Whitfield Manor as a refuge, at least, and Hutch’s face wore a genuine smile as his sister, Katherine, came out to meet him.
“How are you, my dear?” she asked, kissing his cheek. Katherine had turned forty, but time had been kind so far.
“Tired, but well enough.” He held her shoulders within his hands and looked at her. “And you, and my nephews? And Mama?”
Katherine’s face clouded at the consideration of their mother. “The boys are well. I even had a letter from Freddie.” She tilted her head, as if to avert her eyes from sadness. “Mama is not so well, but she’s waiting for you inside.” Hutch walked indoors. The smell of damp was less than he remembered, but Katherine, and her now deceased husband had made a good job of finding money for the house’s upkeep. Things were better here now, Hutch reminded himself, had changed since as a young man he’d gathered his windfall legacy and run, for his life it had seemed at the time, to the study of medicine and his independence.
His mother was up and dressed in her bedroom but Hutch didn’t like her colour, or the shortness of her breath.
“Mama,” he said, and pressed a decorous kiss to her crepey, scented cheek.
“Kenneth,” she said, her eyes lighting with pleasure. “So good to see you, love. I wish it could be more often.”
Hutch shrugged. “My work keeps me busy.”
“You could still come more often.”
“I’ll consider it,” he said.
“It’s not as if you have to stay away because you’re worried that you and your father fighting will distress me.”
“Mama!” Hutch said, flustered, and irritated to hear a touch of the old stutter.
His mother leaned forward, placing her hand upon the back of one of his. Her fingers were cold, despite the mittens she wore. “The truth should never distress us.” And it was a sad truth that life went more easily at Whitfield now that Hutch’s father was dead.
He looked into her eyes, and read regret, and resentment that he still stayed away, and wished that he could explain himself better. But there were some parts of him that, if the God of the Mitchells and Hutchinsons proved kindly, would never be revealed to his mother. There were only so many times he could brush aside her inquiries as to whether he’d met any young woman who might make a suitable wife.
He turned the conversation to her own health, holding her wrist and noting the flutter of her pulse. Anne Hutchinson was happy enough to discuss her indispositions and illnesses, and Hutch regretfully noted that her physician and apothecary were as competent as he. He was unable to improve upon their treatment.
“And how did you find poor Jack Mitchell?” his mother asked. “It’s been quite the talk of the area. He took a fit in the village before he left. So distressing for his family.”
Hutch shrugged. “He wasn’t well in London.”
“He was well enough to visit theatres and actresses,” Anne said acerbically, before she collected herself. “Although I shouldn’t speak ill of the dead.”
“News travels, I see.”
“As do newspapers. Mrs Halse, whom you won’t remember, took the trouble to post me all that she read.” Anne paused. “Will you have to testify?”
“I expect so,” Hutch said. “Along with my friend. We did find...” He paused. The squalor and distress of Eugenie Pruitt’s end had no place in this pleasant room.
“Yes, yes, of course. And your friend?”
Hutch’s eyes widened. He hadn’t meant to mention Starsky, who had as little place in this room as poor Eugenie’s corpse, although for entirely different reasons. Eugenie was dead, and Starsky was vibrantly alive. Hutch tried to imagine him sitting next to his mother, and all he could think was that he would suck the colour from the draperies and the pictures; there would be simply Starsky and his mother, entirely charmed by him, and surprised by it just as her son sometimes was.
“Is he another medical man?”
“No. No, he’s an actor,” Hutch confessed. He’s a Birmingham Jew, he did not say. He’s as dear to me as anyone I’ve ever known.
“Ah,” his mother said, a small crease between her brows. She sighed, and let amusement override reproach. “No wonder you defend poor Jack.”
“Yes,” Hutch said. “No wonder.”
Conversation with Katherine went more comfortably. He would sit in the morning room with her and read the 'Intelligencer', and they would take turns at the piano.
“You’re out of practice,” she said.
Hutch shrugged. “I’ve moved several times, and a piano is a chancy thing to have to shift. But,” his hands moved over the keyboard, “I’ve missed it more than I realised. There’s no shortage of piano makers in London, and I know people who can tell me who will be good value.” There was the excellent piano sitting in the Thunderbolt, but Hutch had avoided that, not wishing the crowd of gawkers that might ensue.
“Buy something nice and send me a long letter telling me all about it– and some London songs. Proper ones, mind you.”
“Katherine, you grieve me. As if I wouldn’t know what to send my little mother.”
She smiled at the old nickname, and stood to gently hug his shoulders, while Hutch’s hands picked out an old country dance.
“Are you happy in London, Ken? Are you?”
“Happy enough,” he said, thinking of Starsky, and that impulsive kiss and the sheer joy he’d felt. It had gone well; but Starsky wouldn’t be the first friend of Hutch’s who had wondered but then run from the reality of a naked, desirous man. Hutch had lost friends, good friends, over that reality, and Starsky was precious to him.
He could let Starsky set the pace, Hutch thought and let himself hope for nothing, not even another kiss on his return.
“Happy enough,” he repeated, not seeing the tiny frown on his sister’s face. She kissed the crown of his head, and sat down once more.
Starsky, for once, wasn’t playing the villain, but instead the hero’s bosom friend, when he thought that he caught a flash of golden hair out in the dimness of the watching theatre. Since this wasn’t the first time that his hope had tricked him he let it pass and concentrated on his role, and his death scene, which was regrettably short, and then required him to lie very still upon the stage for the rest of the scene. He critiqued his fellow players to pass the time, and decided that he would slightly change the timing of his fall in the next performance.
The play over and the curtain dropped, Starsky leapt to his feet to take his bow as the curtain rose once more, letting the roar of the crowd fill his ears. He lifted his head and surveyed the theatre, hunting again for that elusive golden head, but there was no sign.
The theatre patrons, satisfied with their night’s entertainment, filed their way out into the street, while the Thunderbolt’s performers wiped away their makeup and made their own analyses of the evening. When Hutch appeared backstage, his name was carried to Starsky on a wave of other’s greetings and he jumped up before Hutch reached his little room, and stepped into the narrow passageway with his face ridiculously smeared with greasepaint.
Hutch had no thought as to the foolishness of Starsky’s appearance. Instead, he only saw a beloved face and bright, blue eyes. He smiled a little shyly before saying, “Not the villain tonight? You’ll have lead roles before you know where you are,” to the great offense of Albert Wesley, the main lead whose cubby hole was two doors before Starsky’s. Starsky grinned delightedly, and with a cry of “Hutch! You’re back!” shook his friend’s hand, pumping it violently up and down since he couldn’t give Hutch the hug he would have preferred.
“Yes, I’m back, and beating the post. I didn’t mean to, but my mother had friends arrive unexpectedly, and I had no wish to inconvenience her. It was only a day or so.” Only a day or so, and he would see Starsky that much sooner. Hutch was quite grateful to his mother’s unexpected friends.
“It’s good to see you. Let me clean my face and you can tell me all about your travels.” Starsky wiped away paint with a good will, while Hutch leaned against the door jamb and ignored the mass of people moving backwards and forwards, sometimes inches from him, in favour of the revelation of Starsky’s face. It was the same face it had been before Hutch left, but it was different somehow now that they’d kissed.
"There now, I’m me again,” Starsky said, eyeing his cubby hole with dissatisfaction. As much furniture as possible was crammed into the room and as a result the door could not be shut. “Some punch?” he asked. “You look cold.”
Hutch shook his head. “No, I simply wanted to let you know that I was here. It was a long trip back, but at least I made it in one day this time.”
“The journey north went well?”
“Well enough,” Hutch said. “As did everything else. Jack’s decently laid to rest. That’s the important thing.”
“Yes,” Starsky said, and they stared at each other. “Look. I’ll walk back with you, and you can tell me about it without all this racket around us. Unless you’d rather not?”
“No, no – by which I mean, yes, of course, come back if you wish, so long as you don’t mind me falling into bed with exhaustion when we get there.”
“I believe I can deal with that,” Starsky said. A light of mischief appeared in his eyes. “You’ve not inspected your bed yet, I take it?”
“Starsky... what have you done?” Hutch’s forefinger waved between them.
“Nothing, nothing at all,” Starsky replied, with an airiness that only multiplied Hutch’s suspicions. “I wouldn’t be coming back with you if I was going to have to make a dash out the door as soon as we got there, now would I?”
“If you say so. Come on. I feel in a great hurry all of a sudden to make sure that my rooms are in order.”
“You don’t need to hurry,” Starsky said, nervous now, and not because he feared Hutch’s reaction when he found the very clean but anciently disreputable boots that Starsky had laid between his sheets at the foot of the bed.
“Oh, but I think that I do,” Hutch said, and grasped Starsky’s arm in one big hand to hustle him out the back way, into the yard and then out to the alley and the street and there released him. But even without Hutch’s hand to join them, they remained close, shoulders bumping, blood heat radiating between them.
“Life has been quiet in my absence?” Hutch asked.
“Quieter than it was, and for that I’m grateful,” Starsky told him. He resented the darkness of the street, because he hadn’t looked his fill on Hutch yet. He hooked his right arm through Hutch’s left arm and they began to walk towards Hutch’s rooms. “Nothing but theatre business. Vicky’s talking more comfortably now. I think that her spirits are low sometimes, though.”
“I’m not surprised. And your spirits?”
“Moderate, but raised for seeing you again.”
Hutch smiled. “I’m flattered.” They were comfortably in step now. The walk back to Hutch’s rooms became a pleasure in its own right.
“And your own family?” Starsky enquired.
“My sister is well. My mother, not so much.” Hutch’s voice dropped at that, tired and dispirited.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Starsky said, and he was. His mother’s letters, and her regular assurances of her health, were a comfort to him, even if she found it hard to reconcile his profession with her own devout beliefs. “Still, at least a doctor can’t shame the family, eh?” It came out more resentful than he intended.
“Not with his profession, at least.” Hutch swallowed. It was one thing to want Starsky to set his own pace, to choose a kiss, or anything more; it was another to remind Starsky of the risks of that choice, but Hutch felt that he would be doing his friend a disservice if he didn’t. “Starsky,” he said, and then paused.
“You’ve known my name a while now,” Starsky said, when no more words were sounded.
“Before I left... I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. Our friendship is not ... dependent upon any new considerations. If you understand me.” It was as direct as he was prepared to be in public, even on this dark, late night street.
“Noblesse oblige,” Starsky said, but it was fond, and Hutch’s shoulders grew less tight.
“You’ve been reading again. And I’m hardly of noble blood.”
“You’re gormless, is what you are. I’ll explain it to you when we reach your rooms,” Starsky said briskly.
Caught between amusement and offense, Hutch said only, “I look forward to it.”
When they reached Hutch’s rooms there were things to do – light the gas lamp, and the fire that was neatly laid in its grate, pour out two glasses of brandy. Starsky patiently watched these preparations, and was grateful for them, even. It was pleasant to sit in a warm room with a glass of something bracing in his hand. Hutch drank his own liquor, his long legs stretched out, and his eyes hooded. He raised them once, and then lowered them when he saw Starsky’s face. “You were going to tell me how gormless I am.” He took a swallow of his brandy.
Starsky leaned forward, his elbows resting on his knees, the glass cradled between strong, clever fingers. “Has it ever occurred to you that I’m not a very observant Jew?”
“I presumed that you’re not devout. As to anything more – I couldn’t say.”
Starsky smiled, a knowing, dark smile. “I’m as devout a Jew as you are a Christian, and that I can say.” The smile lightened, became more genuinely affectionate. “Do you love medicine, Hutch?”
Hutch considered the question. “I love aspects of it. The knowledge of the body, the chance to help the suffering. But it frustrates me, too. We still know so little.” He took in Starsky and his smile, and the piercing eyes. “I doubt I love medicine the way that you love the stage. Is that what you’re trying to tell me?”
“After a fashion. I do love the stage, but I had to change myself – my name, my customs. I can’t keep the Sabbath and be part of the Thunderbolt, I had to choose. I angered my family, I sundered myself from people I love and respect for something that at best they think is a pretty falsehood.” Starsky stood, and warmed his hands at the fire, while Hutch frankly stared at him, finally willing to believe that he knew exactly where this conversation was leading. “I’m not a child, and I’m not a fool and I know what I’m doing.” Starsky turned to face Hutch then, his face boyish in sudden confusion. “I never thought of men, but then there was you... and Jack, and I found that I did think of it.” He took a step closer to Hutch, who sat frozen in his chair, mesmerised by the approach, by Starsky’s blue, blue eyes, by the glow of his skin in the light. “I did think of it,” Starsky whispered, and bent to hold Hutch’s jaw with one hand and touch lips to lips.
Hutch’s fingers anchored themselves against Starsky’s skull, tracing out the shape of bone under the curly hair. “Think of it some more, then,” he whispered in his turn, and gently pushed Starsky back enough that he could stand and take him in his arms.
The kisses became more assured, hungrier, and with a brief exclamation of impatience, Starsky drew back and took off his coat. “May I?” he asked, his hands resting on Hutch’s lapels. A nod was his answer, and Starsky drew off the coat, Hutch shifting as he needed. Starsky gently threw the coat to the chair behind them, and then turned his attention to waistcoat buttons, and then to the shirt itself, until Hutch stood half-naked in front of him.
Starsky’s eyes widened and he placed one hand across the warm, smooth skin. Hutch caught the hand and held it still for a moment.
“Is this what you expected?” he asked roughly.
“I never expected anything so fine,” Starsky told him, and with a groan Hutch wrapped his arms around him and kissed him – his mouth, his eyes, his throat, before he undid buttons and drew off clothing for himself, and let his hands wander Starsky’s strong, muscled back.
“You’re beautiful,” Hutch muttered. His hand moved to the waist of Starsky’s trousers, and they looked at each other a long moment before Starsky nodded. Hutch undid the fastenings and then grinned, and looked down at Starsky’s feet, still clad in their solid, sensible shoes. He steered Starsky towards the chair by the fire and with care and a reverence that made Starsky swallow, he lowered his clothes as far as his knees, and then commanded Starsky to sit.
“If I must,” Starsky said whimsically, before he winced as his arse hit the coolness of the wooden seat.
“Never mind,” Hutch said. “I believe I can distract you.” He drew off Starsky’s footwear and the half-mast clothes, and then gazed at Starsky until the object of his attention shifted restively. Hutch knelt between his legs and kissed his mouth. “I did tell you that you were beautiful.”
“Perhaps I am – but I’m also randy as a goat.” Starsky grabbed at Hutch’s hand and placed it on his prick. “Please.” Starsky had expected no more than Hutch’s hand, and his eyes grew almost comically wide as Hutch lowered his head to lick at him, while one hand carefully worked him. “My God,” Starsky murmured. “My God.” Hutch lifted his head to look Starsky in the eyes; his smile was wolfish, and he returned to his work and swallowed Starsky, whole it seemed, while Starsky arched his back and almost lifted off the seat of the chair in pleasure and shock, his hands scrabbling through Hutch’s hair. The end came quickly, as Starsky’s thighs trembled and he choked back a cry.
“There,” Hutch said, satisfied in his heart if not yet his body. “There,” he said again, and nuzzled across Starsky’s collarbone and up his neck. “Come to bed with me.”
Starsky recovered some of his breath, and leaned forward to kiss Hutch, his hands warm upon his friend’s neck and shoulders. “You ask so nicely,” he said. “How can I refuse?”
Hutch barked out a laugh and stood, offering Starsky his hand, and they walked together to the small bedroom, barely lit with the light from the little parlour’s gas mantle and the fire. Hutch stripped back the covers and then stopped. At the bottom of the bed, not even fully uncovered at the first, were the boots that Starsky had left there. Hutch drew them out and dangled them from his hand.
“What are these?”
“Boots?” Starsky asked, grinning broadly. “Clean boots, I might add.”
Hutch threw them into the corner as his shoulders shook with laughter. He recovered himself soon enough – he had more urgent and more pleasant matters to consider than Starsky’s prank.
“What am to do with you?”
Starsky answered him in part by putting his arms around his waist, and kissing him. Then he pressed his hips against the hard-on behind Hutch’s still fastened trousers, as an experiment. “I’m entirely at your disposal,” he said, with a smile that Hutch found very sweet.
“So you are, so you are.” And with that, Hutch drew him down, and kissed him in their bed; the first kiss of many.
Chapter 3: The Actor - art by Sonja
Chapter 4: The Doctor - art by Sonja