The Cartwright Curse
Even after more funerals than he cared to think about, Starsky still felt awkward and out of place in a Christian church. Jesus on the cross looked down at him with a stern, suffering expression that made him vaguely uneasy. He shifted on the hard wooden pew, avoiding the statue’s gaze, staring fixedly at the elegant man giving the eulogy.
Vanessa’s father. Rutherford, Roger C, as he’d introduced himself earlier, after frowning with obvious distaste at Hutch.
Starsky cut his eyes left to his partner. Hutch had been distant and brittle since Vanessa was murdered in his apartment. He’d rallied some during the investigation to clear his name, bristling at that bastard Simonetti’s accusations, even joking a little with Starsky. But once the Rutherfords had descended, after Vanessa’s body was released, Hutch’s mood had eroded. He’d closed himself off from Starsky, and that wasn’t a good thing.
Hutch looked thin, hunched over, his hands clenched together in a double fist. Could have been praying, but Starsky doubted it. That was Hutch physically holding himself together to make it through the church service in one piece. Then he was going to go get stinking drunk.
Starsky was quite willing to join him in that endeavor. It wasn’t just being inside a Lutheran church that unnerved him—heck, he hadn’t been inside a Jewish synagogue in several years. It was that this was the exact same church where Terri’s funeral was held. Flashbacks of that awful day had started a barrage of sucker punches. The old sensation that his guts were tied in a noose wasn’t truly back but he’d flinched when he saw the mahogany coffin covered with a spray of pink roses.
Just as Terri’s had been.
Was there some undertaker regulation that beautiful young women had to have mahogany coffins covered in delicate roses? Starsky had never liked regulations, and this one in particular.
Terri’s had been an open coffin service, her beautiful face serene—not a mark on her. The undertaker had done a fine job of covering the tiny bullet wound, but that hadn’t stopped the vindictive stares Terri’s family had directed at Starsky. He was to blame, all his fault.
The what-ifs. If she hadn’t dated that cop, she’d still be alive. Starsky had had exactly the same thoughts—if he’d knocked off work early that night and taken her out.
If he hadn’t ever dated her in the first place.
If he’d killed Prudholm the first time, before Hutch stopped him.
If they’d never arrested Prudholm’s son years ago.
Like hamsters in a wheel, his thoughts had chased each other round and round, but that didn’t change what happened in the end. Terri was still dead.
Van was dead.
Add to that Helen and Gillian.
He and Hutch were like a pair of demented angels, leading the women they dated to slaughter. Sent a chill down Starsky’s spine. He glanced at Hutch again, getting no hint of response—as if Hutch were somewhere else entirely, his blue eyes locked on the coffin, all emotion erased.
Reverend Benjamin stepped up to the pulpit and sympathetically patted Roger C. on the sleeve of his $500 suit. “Vanessa is at peace now,” he said gently.
Vanessa’s mother, a woman so perfectly coiffed and manicured that she looked plastic, broke into noisy sobs. Blue haired aunts and blue blooded cousins closed around her, protecting her from the truth. Even Roger C couldn’t get near his wife.
At least the coffin was closed, Starsky thought with a wince. Van had looked gorgeous, and stone cold dead the last time he saw her. He wouldn’t wish that on anyone’s mother.
“If the congregation would open their hymnals to Nearer my God to Thee,” the Reverend intoned over the women crying. “And the pall bearers may come forward.”
“Hey.” Starsky took a step closer to Hutch as they stood. Neither of them got out a hymnal. Starsky didn’t recognize the tune; finally something that didn’t mimic Terri’s service.
Hutch startled and gasped as if he’d come up from water. “Sssh,” he said unnecessarily as the organ boomed the opening notes.
The thirty member choir situated in a loft at the rear of the church joined in.
The song soared into the rafters, simple but plaintive words that someone from any faith could understand. Under cover of the hustle and bustle of the pall bearers hefting the coffin and the mourners gathering their belongings, Starsky slipped his hand into Hutch’s and gave a squeeze.
Ever since the moment he’d returned from his run at 6:20 on February 22, the same words had been chasing around Hutch’s brain: did I ever really love her? He’d been enraptured, enthralled—and not to be too blunt about it—proud to be seen with such a stunningly beautiful woman. But true love? A nebulous concept, like some mathematical equation that was both unknown and unsolvable.
He’d stared in horror at her beautiful corpse lying on his apartment floor, her skin still warm and faintly pink with blood. The cop in him had fled like a suspected felon. Intellectually, he could assure himself that he had no part in this murder, but the guilt had slotted into place, the missing piece of his jigsaw life with Van.
She’d never been easy to live with, right from the get-go. What was that phrase? A drama queen. He’d originally seen that as a challenge. Technically, she’d been a dare—or perhaps more correctly--a conquest. Nancy Vanessa Rutherford, ex-homecoming queen, the prettiest member of Pi Beta Phi, had been the object of every frat boy’s dreams.
Ken Hutchinson had never had trouble getting girls until she’d eyed him coolly and declined his offer of a drink at the Beta Theta Pi fraternity mixer. His buddy, Alex Webster, had seen the brush off and chortled in glee.
“Couldn’t get her to tumble, eh?” he’d laughed, the Canadian accent stronger than usual. “I thought that chiseled chin, those Icelandic blue eyes and corn silk hair were like catnip to kittens.”
“Not Icelandic.” Ken laughed, drinking beer. “Mother is Danish, Dad’s people came over for the Revolutionary War.”
“See?” Webster winked. “All that blue blood—and I do mean blue if your mom’s from snowier climes than Minnesota--should appeal to one of the Rutherford girls. And don’t call her Nancy, she prefers Van.”
“She’s a Rutherford?” Ken eyed Vanessa speculatively. His father did business with hers, he’d heard the name but they were from the Twin cities, not Duluth. He definitely liked what he saw. Her hair was styled in a perky flip, her pink and green Lily Pulitzer shift the height of fashion (and he only knew that because his sister Karen had a similar dress). A pair of white boots finished off the outfit, accenting her shapely legs.
He wanted her. Badly.
So did every other guy in the fraternity, but Vanessa stood aloof with her glass of seltzer, whispering to a sorority sister.
“Seventy five bucks says you can’t get the Ice Queen to fall for those wealthy country boy looks.”
That had been all it took—a bet to turn flirting into a dare. Ken knew the strategies, now that he recognized her for the debutant that she was. All he had to do was pretend disinterest but casually name drop while flirting outrageously with pretty Melinda Lunt, a lowly scholarship student.
He’d snagged Van by the end of the night. Webster handed over the cash the next morning.
Ken and Vanessa dated for two years, and Van had one goal from the beginning. Wedded bliss. Their parents indulged in the overly extravagant wedding dictated by Lillian Rutherford, Vanessa’s mother, and sent the newlyweds on a European honeymoon trip the day after Ken and Van graduated from university. Hutch had fallen in love by that time, and Vanessa had certainly seemed smitten. They cuddled though Venice and Rome, then held hands while touring the Louvre in Paris. Romantic, yes. Accord and agreement? Hardly ever. Harmony never blessed their union. There was competition and dissention from day one.
Arguments during the day segued to sex after dark. Never go to bed angry was Ken’s hopeful mantra, but it was a difficult code to stand by. The move to California, his decision to go to the police academy and the necessity to accept money from their parents until he was making a decent paycheck had strained an already acrimonious marriage.
His had been a simple adoration for a goddess, pure and--well, if not chaste--then loving. Van was fun when she was happy. She reveled in the good life, sparkled like champagne when they were at parties or had the money to indulge.
Hutch wasn’t sure when the niggling doubts had begun, but he was fairly sure it was well before he said “I do” in front of the Lutheran Bishop of Minnesota. Looking back at his own parents’ truncated marriage, he hadn’t actually expected Cupid’s bow piercing his heart. Hearts and flowers were for Romeo and Juliet, real life didn’t work that way.
He’d always enjoyed the sex—and some of the passionate battles, if truth be told. But those had been in the early days when they both still cared for each other. By the time the last bricks of the wall between them had been mortared into place, all that was left was cold, lifeless distain. Hutch freely admitted to his half of the hostility but at the heart of the matter—if that was the right word to use—was the question: had he ever loved her at all?
He kept his eyes on the pink rose buds arranged in stiff precision on top of the coffin. Certainly Lillian Rutherford’s choice. His own small floral arrangement had been shunted off into a corner in favor of other more ostentatious funereal displays.
Despite any rational evidence that he had absolutely nothing to do with Vanessa’s murder, he had a raw culpability. He’d been proven innocent and free of blame, yet felt incredibly guilty. Would this have happened if she had stayed in a hotel?
There was no way to know for sure. She’d engaged in a dangerous game with the diamond—but if she hadn’t taken refuge in a cop’s home? Would there have been less suspicion of her motives?
Playing the ‘what-if’ game, as Starsky often did—Hutch could go back exponentially, right to the beginning of their relationship. What if he hadn’t accepted the bet and let Nancy Vanessa date some other guy? Was there a point in their lives where he could he have drawn the line and stopped their joined history? It wasn’t possible to rearrange the past—right up until the moment of her death.
What if he’d taken a day off from jogging? Could he have prevented the murderers from gaining entrance to his home? Or would that have initiated a whole different set of circumstances? He’d have grabbed his gun, pointed at Van’s assassin and what then? Would he have wound up dead on the carpet, too?
What if—by incredible misfortune, in aiming at the gunman, Hutch had missed and shot Van instead?
Had some karma, some whim of chance ordained that Nancy Vanessa Rutherford Hutchinson die on February 22, 1978? Maybe there was no way to prevent her death? Maybe that fine skein that unspooled from a person’s birth simply ended on an appointed day?
He couldn’t think straight. The self-torturous thoughts looped around and around, unending. They tied up his breath, his belly, his hope in angry knots. He needed a drink—ten beers. No, ten vodka tonics, as Van had reminded him.
Hutch looked away from his ex-wife’s coffin after what felt like years of solitude, registering her father climbing down from the pulpit. He hadn’t heard a word of the eulogy. Beside him, Starsky shifted in the hard pew, one leg pressing momentarily against Hutch.
Warmth, life, love slid into the crack in his soul.
This had to be brutal for Starsky. St. Stephan’s was the exact same church where Terri Roberts’ service was held. Hutch recalled that funeral, one year ago almost to the day. Too hot, too oppressive, Starsky’s blank one thousand yard stare glued to his lady’s coffin. He’d loved her fiercely, the sort of love that burned hot and fast. Would they have eventually fizzled as a couple if she hadn’t died first? No way to tell.
In his heart of hearts, Hutch had harbored a hint of jealousy for what Starsky and Terri had had. Complete, uncomplicated love.
Being honest, something Hutch had always prided himself on—he’d never loved Van unconditionally. He’d never felt a love that sustained, that sheltered, when married to her. The simple but astonishingly complex emotion of love had eluded him for the first twenty-three years of his life—possibly longer, since he hadn’t really recognized Starsky’s friendship, Starsky’s essence, for what it really was until Van went away.
Starsky filled him, bouyed him and sustained him like no other person on earth.
“Nearer my God to thee, nearer my God…”
The majestic hymn swelled from thirty voices, permeating the interior of the lovely old church. Hutch had a hard time letting go—another truth he knew about himself. As the pall bearers paraded slowly down the center aisle, taking Van to her grave, he felt a true pang of loss. In spite of all, he and Vanessa had been intertwined, for the good and the bad, since they were nineteen years old. He’d known her fourteen years. He couldn’t dispute that she was part of him—and he her. What piece of him went with her into death?
Starsky moved closer without opening a hymnal and placed his palm against Hutch’s right hand, giving a squeeze.
It was the best thing Hutch had felt all day.
“You going to the wake?” Starsky asked, shielding his eyes to watch the hearse pull out of St. Stephan’s parking lot.
“Reception,” Hutch corrected automatically, shaking his head at the same time.
“What’s the difference?” Starsky lifted his shoulders, half a shrug, half acceptance to whatever Hutch wanted.
“The type of alcohol served?” Hutch commented thoughtfully, heading toward the Torino. “Unless I miss my guess, there’ll be champagne and imported French wine at any reception the Rutherfords put on. A wake has whiskey and beer.”
“My kind of party.” Starsky watched his partner. Hutch had shaken off some of his burden, but he wasn’t fully back to normal. How could he be? Ex-wife or not, Van had meant something to him in the past. However, to a one, the Rutherfords weren’t acknowledging him, and he hadn’t said a word to any of them.
What did they know? Hutch was not in the wrong here. Not by a long shot. Vanessa had been into some nasty shit, to put it bluntly. In his opinion, dangling a stolen diamond in front of a mobster like Wheeler was stupid in the extreme.
Starsky freely admitted that he’d never liked Van. She’d always seemed like a doll—one of those plastic Barbies, all surface with nothing inside to make her human. He’d known her as Hutch’s wife for approximately a year, then—privately—as the bitch Hutch was in the process of divorcing for longer than that.
He swung open the driver’s door and reached across the seats to unlock Hutch’s door.
“Four years, six months and twelve days, “ Hutch muttered, slumping into the car.
“Van said we hadn’t seen each other –“
Ah,” Starsky nodded, starting the car. “In four years, six months and—“
“Twelve days,” Hutch repeated. “In other words, August 10th, 1973.”
“That I remember. The last divorce hearing after too many attempts to get back together.” Starsky concentrated driving, unwilling to put in the rest of his opinion. That Hutch should never have taken Van back the first two times in ‘71 and ‘72. The stats for their marriage had been pretty bad: Van cheated on him, Hutch moved out, Van moved in with him in a new place, and they had such a knock down fight that both sported black eyes. No, theirs had never been a union made in heaven.
“Community property state.” Hutch heaved a sigh. “And Van wanted more than I ever had to give.”
“Yeah.” Starsky placed a gentle hand on his partner’s thigh. It hurt him deeply what Van had done in the name of “preserving their marriage’. There were so many times when Starsky had been forced to batten down any and all emotion to maintain peace with that witch. He’d only done so because Hutch had the right to live with whomever he wanted—despite the cost. Starsky loved Hutch too much to deny him anything. Hutch had tried and failed, long after he recognized that Van didn’t return the favor.
Hutch had put up with Vanessa’s conniving and vicious ways far longer than most husbands would. That she was murdered on his living room floor nearly set the whole affair on the level of a Greek tragedy. Not to mention a much more mundane version of entertainment.
“Hey.” Starsky leaned his left elbow against the car door, maneuvering the steering wheel with two fingers.
Hutch looked up, his brow furrowed and eyes dulled with grief. But at least Starsky had his attention, which was a damned sight better than the last few days. “You ever watch Bonanza?”
“You know westerns aren’t my bag,” Hutch said dismissively.
However, there was that little spark of interest that told Starsky he’d snagged Hutch. All he had to do was reel him in.
“Right,” Starsky drawled, taking a left onto Crenshaw. Not the Pits today with its familiarity. Nor Nellie’s where there could be half a dozen cops at any one time. Hutch needed a dark anonymous bar where they could tuck back a couple doubles and quietly hold hands. “You say that, even though you own three cowboy hats, a vest, a leather jacket with fringe,” he grinned, cocking his forefinger at Hutch, “and a toy Colt that uses a roll of caps.” He had to admit to that he adored the astringent scent when the hammer hit the cap with a mini explosion of noise and smoke.
“You gave me that gun,” Hutch said dryly, looking out the windshield. “Where are we going?”
“That’s informative.” Hutch rolled his eyes, arms crossed, folded in on himself.
“Someplace neutral, where we don’t know anyone and can drink until we’re three sheets to the wind, then sleep it off in the car,” Starsky patted his comfortable seats, “until one of us is sober enough to drive home.”
Hutch pursed his lips, obviously considering the idea. He nodded. “What does that have to do with Bonanza?”
Starsky spotted a bar on the next corner, a single Coors sign blinking forlornly in the window, and slid the Torino next to the curb. “Wait until we have beer…” He glanced at Hutch speculatively.
Which just went to prove Starsky’s hypothesis: Hutch was in the depths of his despair. Beer was generally his favorite beverage. “Something cold in front of us.”
They pushed through the door of Pete’s Place shoulder to shoulder. The room was dim, just this side of too dark to see, pitifully illuminated by small electric lamps over each table. The bar itself was scuffed and worn, dozens of burned slashes recalling the cigarettes left on the edge by neglectful smokers.
“What’ll it be?” the bartender asked, handing a glass of beer to the only other customer in the place.
“Two beers and a whiskey chaser,” Starsky ordered as Hutch headed for a table in the dimmest corner.
By sheer coincidence, Little Joe Cartwright rode his pinto Cochise across the screen of the TV above the cash register. The volume was off but Starsky thought he recognized the dark haired beauty waving. The youngest Cartwright dismounted and the couple shared a brief, TV appropriate, kiss.
Carrying the drinks to their table, Starsky reflected on the women who had passed through their lives. Not just Terri and Van. There were numerous others he and Hutch had shared like a popsicle they’d snapped in half to each get a taste. Not one of those women were around anymore. More than half of them were dead.
He placed the glasses in front of Hutch, and still standing, raised his beer mug. “Here’s to loves lost and gone.”
“Not sure if I should drink to that,” Hutch said morosely, but he lifted the shot of whiskey and tapped it against Starsky’s frosty glass. “I don’t think I ever really knew Van, much less loved her.” The alcohol was smooth and warm, just exactly what he’d needed after the funeral. One swallow eased all the tension in his shoulders, the second and finale muted the headache four aspirin hadn’t dulled. The beer would do the rest. “Do you ever think about all the women we’ve had? That none of them, not a single one, last?” He tasted the beer and drank half the contents of the mug in one go.
“All the time.” Starsky nodded, his eyes going past Hutch’s shoulder to something behind him.
Hutch turned and shook his head. He hadn’t even noticed the TV. Little Joe was talking with emphatic arm gestures to big brother Hoss. Both looked intense and worried. “Did you know that’d be on?”
“No!” Starsky laughed, wiping the beer mustache off his upper lip. “When do I ever have time to watch afternoon reruns?” He pointed at a young Suzanne Pleshette. “She was a looker, huh?”
“She’s not bad as Bob Newhart’s wife now.” Hutch turned back around. The glare from the bright screen increased his headache, just what he didn’t need.
“I knew you liked that show!” Starsky nodded with a fond grin.
“You were watching. I was in the room.” Hutch shrugged, contemplating the foam at the bottom of his mug. He wanted another. He wanted to be plastered, smashed—what had Starsky said? Three sheets to the wind, to blot out all the self-loathing, guilt and recriminations that mounted whenever he thought of Van.
If he’d never made the damned bet, years and years ago, would she still be alive?
“Hutch, you can’t change what happened to Van,” Starsky said very softly, as if he’d reached in and pulled the thoughts out of Hutch’s brain.
“How’d you know?”
“Cause you said exactly the same thing to me after Terri’s funeral.” Starsky curved his fingers over Hutch’s lax hand. “You and me, we’re like Little Joe and his brothers. For whatever reason, we find a girl, maybe love her, maybe just wanna have some fun for a night—“
Hutch snorted, thinking of all the easy lays with flight attendants and a less easy experience with a homicidal nurse.
“And then they’re gone, leaving just you and me.”
“Me and thee.” Hutch clutched Starsky’s hand for a moment before letting go. Starsky’s support was all that kept him upright most days. “That why you were going to give me your boots way back when, Li’l Joe?”
“Yeah.” Starsky grinned, but there was a sadness, a weariness that spoke of all that they couldn’t say to each other. All that was kept bottled and sealed on the shelf.
“To love, then.” Hutch raised his empty glass.
“You don’t have anything in your glass,” Starsky commented, clinking his against Hutch’s anyway. “Don’t think you’ve got the fine art of toasting down.”
“Starsk, when did we do anything the right way?” Hutch grinned finally. He signaled the bartender for a second round. Anything that would give him time with Starsky, time to grieve and time to move forward.
He knew who he loved. And who loved him.