I was nearly out the door the day we got that call.
Figured it had to be Ma's boss, Mr Maldini, cause this'd be about the time he'd call if he needed her to work tomorrow, or maybe one of the uncles calling up to bum dinner. I hung around in the doorway so's I could say goodbye, jingling the change in my pocket, trying to signal to her, but then her face kinda sank inwards. For a second she looked straight at me, like she was seeing something that wasn't there, and then she focused again and she mouthed the word to me. Like I would understand and could make it all alright.
Knew straightaway it was the call I had bet she would get right from the day we found out he'd gone to the Academy.
To be honest, all kinds of thoughts went through my mind just in that one set of moments. Like... shit, how do I deal with this? But I dropped my bag and shut the door, watching Ma bobbing her head, her hand holding the phone receiver all limp. When it was clear that no-one was on the end anymore I came and took it off her.
"OK, Ma, take it easy, tell me what's happened."
"He's been shot," she said, her voice all quivery like the old lady she isn't yet.
What do you expect? Of course he's been shot! He's a cop.
Put her down in the chair, sat next to her, realised she was needing me to be something I wasn't. A mixture of Dad and David, with maybe a bit of Uncle Al thrown in.
"Tell me how bad it is," I said, thinking leg wound, shoulder maybe. He'd had both of those before -- guess I don't have the imagination to take it from there.
"I think it's bad," she squeaked. "They said chest."
They hadn't mentioned three bullets at that stage.
"It isn't even lunchtime there," I remember saying, thinking how in hell do you get shot before it's even lunchtime?
"Look at this," Ma said, gesturing round at all the mess -- yeah, most of it mine, I'd been staying over a few weeks now -- the remains of TV dinners and breakfast, the bedroll I camped out on in the corner of the room, my boots and jackets and bags and newspapers.
"Don't worry," I told her, my mind racing on ahead. "I'll sort it out while you're gone."
Then that old sparkle lit her eye, that flash that made us sit up straight when we was kids. She flung aside her quivers and her squeaks. "Now listen here, Nicholas," she said. "You are coming with me. Your brother may be dying. We can leave all this like it is. Ring the bus company -- tell them you need compassionate leave or something. We need to put some things together and the police will get us there."
"They what?" I said, envisaging a black and white airplane flying us to the west coast, siren blaring, red light flashing on the roof.
"They said they'd handle all of it. We just have to get to the airport."
Man I hate to be rushed. Was having trouble processing that the call had even come in. And then that my fool brother had taken a bullet in the chest. And then that Ma -- or someone she spoke to -- reckoned he might be dying. I musta been staring into space or something, cos Ma suddenly poked me in the collarbone with her finger, sharp.
"All you gotta do is put some things in a bag, Nicky," she said, and she sounded so like him all of a sudden. "It ain't much." And then she whirled off -- set me whirling too. Been whirling ever since.
Well the BCPD couldn't work miracles. We found out we weren't on the next flight, had to wait until early evening. Finally got on the airplane and we were sitting near the back. I was still fuming from talking to the bus company who'd said I could take three days for nothing and then look for work elsewhere. Three days would be about enough to take it all in and head back again, and I knew I couldn't do that. Whatever was waiting for us over there would be a big deal for Ma and I'd have to be with her. It always took me a bit of time to get my man-of-the-family act together, but I did it, in the end, in my own way.
Might seem like I was being a bit callous and all. Like I didn't care what had happened. I did, I cared. Sure I cared. But if you're a cop and you go and get yourself shot... well, it's like being a grunt. You run around with a gun, what's going to happen to you?
Sat there thinking about a few months ago when I was messed-up and came out to visit him. I'd been on his case then, about his job and all. Just because of Dad, I'd said for the millionth time, didn't mean he had to go and do the same thing. Man, especially because of Dad. Mind you, he'd kinda surprised me. I got to see a bit of what he does, and he certainly wasn't his father's son, cop or no cop. Two major differences. My brother bounced out of a uniform as quick as he could... and he preferred not to lose himself in the bottom of a bottle of Jack Daniels every night. Didn't seem to care that they paid him a pittance to put his head up over the parapet every day.
And then I got to thinking about his partner and wondering just what had gone down this morning.
The boy mostly likely to succeed. The boy most likely to keep my brother in the force.
OK, so you could see -- just about -- why my brother fell into the trap and decided to become a policeman. But Hutchinson? Why would he? Had all the advantages -- money, brains, good looks, talent. Could figure it out with Davey, even though it stuck in my craw. Couldn't figure it out at all with Hutchinson. Couldn't figure him out. Nothing about him. Didn't know what he saw in my brother, couldn't see how come they were so wrapped up in each other. They were from different planets as far as I could see. But Ma.... well, she'd always thought the world of him, from the first moment she laid eyes on him. The kind of friend she'd always wanted Davey to have. That he'd never had before. Her eyes went all misty around him, like he was her goddamned long-lost son or something.
Me and Hutch were never gonna hit it off. It was a given, something we sorta acknowledged whenever we met. Didn't stop other people chewing their fingernails to the quick about it though.
When we touched down it was one of those smoggy, but kinda pretty, California evenings and there was a car waiting for us. Can you believe it? It wasn't a black and white, but it had a red light on the roof.
"We'll take you straight to the hospital," they said.
"Do you have any news?" Ma asked but they was saying nothing else.
I didn't like the feeling they gave me. Like there was a whole lot to say to us but they weren't about to say it, we had to discover it all on our own. They dropped us off, gave Ma the number of Family Liaison. And there was nothing else to do but go and face it.
First of all there was this guy. This Captain Dobey, the boss-man. He was there ready for us. Clearly used to taking all the flak when officers were down, or lost. He said things were about as serious as they could be, called it an assassination attempt, like David was the president or something. They were surprised down in the police garage, he said. David took the hit, and Hutchinson got away with it. Scot free. Which figured.
Then there was a doctor, cranking things up a level. Not just shot, he told us. My brother had taken three bullets from an automatic weapon. One bullet in the chest was enough to kill you straight off. He'd taken three and he was still pumping. Doc had these well-worn phrases to sum it all up. Major blood loss. Extensive trauma. Massive damage. Let you know that things would never be the same again one way or another.
Didn't I tell him? You're not a cat, Davey. You don't got nine lives. Went in country and came back in one piece. Now you want to put on another uniform and strap a gun to your shoulder every day? Are you crazy? Don't be a cop, son. Don't you hear Pops saying that to you? What did it get him except a bunch of unhappy years and then a bullet to finish things off? You think your luck will hold out, you're wrong. Three bullets. Three of 'em. And your partner doesn't have a mark on him.
Then we was on the way to see, only first there was one more obstacle.
He sprang up from a chair in the corridor as we came round a corner. Got a shock when I saw he had these big, dried bloodstains on his blue shirt. It confused me. My brother's blood, same as my blood, painted on this guy. Ma about hugged him to death, and when she'd finished I just locked eyes with him and said straight out, "Aren't you the one who's supposed to watch his back?"
And man I knew I'd hit pay dirt. It was like I'd just said the one thing he'd been carrying around all day hoping no-one wasn't ever going to say to him.
He held up his hands towards me like he wasn't going to fight me about it right now, and then I heard Ma's voice catch in her throat. She was staring through the glass into this dark little room, and I turned and looked.
So help me I felt like the floor just jumped up and hit me.
David. The name left my mouth real loud. Made Ma grab my arm tight.
My brother stretched out all wrapped in white, all tubed up, all taped down, lying flat like a corpse on a slab. They'd stuck something up his nose, something else down his throat and I just bled for him. If anyone hated all this hospital shit it was him. He was scared of waking up wired to machines. I knew that.
They let us go right on in and I could feel Hutchinson's eyes on my back. He felt like it was his place to be there, and not mine.
But I ask you. Haven't I always tried to protect David? Every time I talk to him on the phone I say to him -- when are you going to throw in your badge, man, and go and get a job that that'll give you a paycheck without having to scrape the bottom of the barrel of humanity every damn day? And he laughs at me. This is who I am, Nick. And I don't want to manage a bunch of buses. Yeah, but, managing a bunch of buses don't matter, and managing a bunch of buses don't get you killed. So... haven't I always tried to protect you, brother?
And, more important, what was there today? What was there to protect you today, Davey? Not your badge. Not your gun. Not your partner.
Ma cried. She waved her hands about, wanting to touch him, but she didn't dare at first. Called him all those old pet names. I just stood there and took it all in. Why did it have to be him? Sure, he'd explained their whole partner thing to me over and over and made it sound like it would always work. So, let me get this straight... you put your life in his hands, Davey, when there was an assassin on your tail?
We listened to a whole bunch of stuff from the doctors. All sounded bad. I wasn't even going to get the chance to say I told you so. Why would he fight this? Just to come back and then get shot down again some other time? Well, I mean he could be stubborn sometimes -- like me, like Ma -- but I say again. He wasn't his father's son. Wasn't going to beat his head against a wall and all for nothing.
After a while I couldn't take it anymore in there. Left Ma clinging on to his hand and went out to find Hutchinson.
Captain Dobey told me he had just left, on his way to do that cop thing. Hunt down the evil-doers. Flash his gun. Probably knock down a handful of other people who were nothing to do with it on the way. I caught up with him in the basement.
"Hey! Hutch!" I shouted. Always thought that name sounded strange coming from me.
He turned, saw me coming, stopped where he was.
I was breathless with running and while I found the air to speak he looked me over. The man just had no time for me. And now, after this, with David up there in a hell of a mess, he had no need to pretend. Me neither.
"How'd it happen, Hutch?" I asked eventually. "Seems to me like we just lost him. How come he got three bullets and... uh, you got none?"
"Nick," he said again. He was calm. "They came up driver's side. I had a whole car in front of me, and I just got down quicker."
"He didn't get down in time?"
"I don't know. It wouldn't have made any difference. Like I said. They were his side. There was nowhere for him to go..."
"Did you see them? Didn't he? Why didn't you...?"
"Nick, we both saw them at the last second. Your brother knew he only had one option -- try and get off a shot... but there just wasn't time. I was on the other side."
"So," I said, "You went to ground and left my brother to take all of the heat?"
"It wasn't like that." He had so little fight left in his voice that I felt almost sorry for him. Almost.
"So tell me how it was. You were there. Seems like you saved yourself but you didn't try and save him."
"I did what we always do, Nick. When under fire... we get down, go to cover."
"But he didn't get down!" I shouted. "He got shot down! You're telling me he was just unlucky? Wrong place at the wrong time?"
Hutchinson's mouth opened but nothing came out. Struck me then that he was still in a state of shock from this whole thing. Walking around with this unreal calm, my brother's blood on his shirt. But I really wanted to know. I needed to picture it all, work out who was where when. But when he tried again to speak I kinda flipped. He couldn't possibly tell me anything I wanted to hear and I was just mad.
"Oh save it!" I snarled at him. "He was trying to protect you. Keeping you safe -- that's what he always did."
He was pale then. Swaying around up there at the top of his six foot something ivory tower. And I knew this whole thing was ripping his heart out. It was ripping his heart out worse than it was mine. He was already thinking he'd let his brother cop down. No... more than that. He was thinking he'd let his brother down. Which in a funny kind of way made him my soul-mate.
Most of the things people said to me that day I only remembered for half a second and then forgot at once. All the stuff the paramedics were saying in the ambulance, fighting to keep him all the way to the hospital, while I sat there in the corner, wanting so badly to reach out and get a hold, but knowing I could do no good. I was fixated on the smell of the blood, the feel of it under my fingernails. My shirt was wet, sticking to me. Even my cuffs were wet, like I'd been dabbling my hands in a puddle.
The details the doctors gave us, me and the Cap, as we stood there in the waiting room outside the OR, just swam around unprocessed. Every word the Cap said to me, one arm around my shoulder, was quiet and comforting, I'm sure of it, but I have no memory of what they were.
The one thing I did keep a good recall of, though, was the moment Dobey said that Starsky's Mom and brother were on their way. It struck me so hard. It meant that this thing was for real -- it was actually happening and it was as bad and hopeless as it seemed. And what was more, it meant that we couldn't be in our bubble anymore, me and Starsky. It wasn't just me and him against the world. It was like our whole script had been torn up and thrown away. I was going to have to wait in line now behind Ma Starsky and Nick.
Part of me kept hoping that by the time they got here there would have been a miracle. Starsky would have pulled through, and there would be tears and relief and amazement that he'd done it. I wasn't too upset to hear that they couldn't get the first flight but they'd had to wait. In the meantime I had Huggy saying all these wise words to me which I don't remember, and another bit of me was thinking that I had to get up and get doing.
Somehow, despite the blood loss and the trauma, despite the shattering effect of high-velocity lumps of metal giving them the maximum amount of problems to deal with, they didn't lose him on the table. One of the surgeons came out and burbled at us but I still couldn't retain a thing that made any difference to me. I know there was a critical condition in there somewhere They kept us barricaded into this damn room until they said he was hooked up on life support in Intensive Care. Even then Captain Dobey had to steer me.
No-one said I could get a chair. But I went and got one anyway. Dragged it up the corridor, plumped it down dead center of the window and just sat there. I was making some kind of a point because I kept being told I couldn't go to him right now. Huggy and the Cap hung around on their feet, but I sat stuck to that chair, and I was still sitting in it when they arrived, nearly eleven hours after he went down.
Seeing Ma Starsky made it a little bit worse all over again. I got up and she came and wrapped me in her arms, just like her oldest boy would have done. Brought it all home again, what we were losing, what we'd have to endure. Then when she let me go I got a good look at Nick.
Everyone always says you couldn't mistake them for anything except brothers, but I never see it like that. Oh sure, Nick has the ready smile. He has the breeze, the cheek, the personality that comes up and slaps you right in the face. But he doesn't have the eyes. And in so far as I know him, he doesn't have the soul.
Normally we do this kind of dance, we do these smiles and make this small talk. We both do it for Starsk. Either he just lets us get on with it, or else he doesn't realise it's only a dance. But on this day, in this place, there was none of that. Nick just stared right at me, hostility writ large all over his face, and he said, "Aren't you the one who's supposed to watch his back?"
It was very strange to hear those words coming out of his mouth. Like he had read them teeming around in my brain just by looking at me. I don't know what I would have answered him, but I didn't get the chance because that was when they both spied him through the glass and realised that it was all true -- their boy was laid out in there fighting for his life in a battle that nobody believed he could win.
The right thing to do was to leave them. Let them go in and try and feel about to see if there was anything of him to get close to. It was one of the hardest things that day so far... to have to back off. To have to let Starsky's brother go and stand next to him and feel all protective and wounded, while I walked away.
The thing that Nick Starsky did, though, was to concentrate my mind. Up to the moment he came stomping after me in the basement and tried to lay it all on me I had felt like my head was full of holes. The faster information was being pumped in, the swifter it was all flowing out.
I had been stumbling through the day on one, instinctive thought, keeping all the others at way beyond arm's length. Stick close to Starsky. Stick as close as you can and it will all work out. When Nick asked me to tell him how it happened I heard my own calm voice telling him how I just got down quicker. I did what we always do, Nick.
I heard him accuse me of letting Starsky take all the heat, while I just went to ground. And the Hutch he knew answered him, explained how it couldn't have been any other way, how there were no other options. Of course it wasn't acceptable. Not to him, and not to me.
Seems like you saved yourself but you didn't try and save him.
That was what Nick got me thinking about. Leaving the hospital to go back to Metro, feeling like I was leaving a better part of me behind, I sat behind the wheel and tried to go through it. It hurt like hell not to be able to go through it with Starsky.
When I got back to the hospital in the very early hours of the next day and Nick and his Ma were gone to get some rest, what would later become so familiar still seemed strange. I got to sit in the room instead of out on that chair, trying to keep as close as possible, but out of the way of all the nurses and doctors that kept coming in to tweak things. It was all familiar to them. I just felt like I was trying to break the surface of a long, vivid nightmare.
It certainly didn't seem like it was either me or Starsky in that room. We were back in the police garage, locked in a time warp, because I couldn't get my mind past the second when the first shots sounded and I heard that little cut-off gasp along with them, that told me that what was never supposed to happen had just gone and happened. I was on my feet and he...
Is it what you think, too, Starsk? Do you think I saved myself but I didn't try and save you?
By any kind of civilised hour I was looped. The nurses were giving me these long, steady looks. Like they were wondering when I was going to keel over on the floor next to the bed. I opened my eyes at some point and found Ma Starsky stroking his cheek with the back of her hand. I had been sleeping on Starsky's arm, one hand tucked under his chilly fingers. Nick was opposite me, staring. He looked like he thought I had been trying to disconnect the life support system.
When I got up to stagger out he followed me into the corridor, and he stopped me, getting hold of my arm.
"Hey, listen," he said. "You gotta know one thing."
"I know what I mighta said in the past, but my brother always did right by me."
I know it, Nick, I've lived it.
"And sometimes I haven't been there for him," he went on, and although his voice was low and he sounded humble, I never thought, not for one second, that Nick Starsky was going soft on me. "But I'm here now, know what I'm saying?" His hand was still on my arm. I felt like I was being warned off a case by some two-bit punk. "I'm here and I'm staying." He squeezed a little tighter. "I'm his brother."
The doctors never held out much hope.
David had lost so much blood to begin with that what parts of him weren't full of metal were all seized up. There was brain activity, but they said it was like the last of his batteries running down and in any case after all the surgery they kept him so heavily sedated his brain had to be mush.
I got on the phone to the bus company on the third morning we were there and they gave me the rest of the week. If I didn't show Monday morning I was off the payroll.
C'mon, man. Either die and let Ma and the Uncles put you through one of those funerals, whether you wanted that or not -- or beat the odds and show us you'll come through this. Otherwise I'm out of a job... and you know that's never a good thing for your bank account.
It sounds bad, I know, that I thought like that, but it'd make Davey smile. He knew me. We had decades between us, decades of the kind of memories that out-did nine years of a cop partnership.
And the cop action was going on in the background all the time. Hutchinson was a man on a mission. I didn't want to hear any of the details. It was all the same to me. Some creep wanted revenge for something that never would have come up if my brother hadn't been a cop, and I hoped they'd get him. But it didn't change a damn thing one way or another.
When it came down to it, none of us was there when he crashed.
Ma and I were resting at the motel and Hutchinson was sat in his office.
Davey tried to shut down. Take flight. But they shocked him back, like they have to do. And I wonder, you know, if it mightn't've been better if they'd let him take his leave there and then. Would have saved him suffering all the shit that came after. But they didn't. And we didn't know nothing about it for a while.
Hutchinson called in just as he hit the flatline. And I guess he must have thought he wouldn't get there. But he made it. And Davey made it, although it didn't do him much good. They got him stabilized, got him breathing again, let him do it on his own, and just for a little bit it was the miracle show, he was back in the world, even waking up and talking to us. Then right away all these infections kicked in. He just got flooded by them, didn't have the strength to fight any of them off, and the doctors were up against the ropes. It was worse than when we first got there. He'd come far enough back to the surface to feel the pain, and you could see, just by the way he lay, that he could feel it pretty much all the time, whatever they pumped into him.
When we was kids David used to spike fevers all the time. Whatever it was, a cold, a cough, the chicken pox, he was always scarifying Ma. Each time there used to be this one bad night when the neighbors came around to keep me company and Ma had the doctor in with him, or took him off to the hospital, and then after that, the next morning, he'd roll over and open his eyes and grin at us like what are you all staring at?
And I was waiting for him to do that now.
But his brain was bubbling.
I always thought hospitals could just come up with more meds, but I don't think they'd invented artillery heavy enough for this. They'd already filled him up with as many drugs as they could in one go and the mix was making him crazy. What started as a little tremor in one hand soon got out of control, swept through him like a bushfire, and the pain from where he was all in pieces was making tears stand up in his eyes. I didn't know what to do. I was afraid he was going to about bust open all his stitches. Not half an hour ago, when David seemed settled and ready to talk, I'd told Hutchinson in no uncertain terms to back off, to leave me alone in here with my brother, and he'd gone. The tremor started about then.
Funny how memories just wash all over you sometimes. David broke his arm in the school playground one time. He was eight. Didn't sob, didn't say nothing. Just sat there with these same big tears standing up in his eyes. I didn't know what to do that time either.
"What can I do?" I said to him now, just like I had back then. "Tell me what I can do for you."
"Hey, Nick," he got out, and his whole body was shaking so bad. "Wouldja just... wouldja just... go find Hutch?"
And I guess that about said all I needed to know.
I was still seething from being kicked out. Starsk had been trying so hard to stay with us, stay on the right side of all the meds, and all he'd got for his trouble was us wrangling at the end of the bed. Nick made it sound like his brother had just asked for me to come along whenever I had a moment. He was so casual coming to find me that I didn't really get the message straight off.
But I got it as soon as I came in and heard the bed-rail clanking.
"He's in some distress," one of the nurses said, as if I couldn't see that. "We really need to calm him down."
"We really need to calm you down, Starsk," I said, weaving my way in.
Up to then I hadn't done any of the important stuff. I hadn't been the shield for him to hide behind, and I hadn't taken them out before they got to him. I hadn't managed to stem a single drop of his blood as it raced away, and, worst of all, I hadn't even been there when tried to die. But this... whatever it was... this I could do.
I could put up a wall, and make it stop with me.
It sure wasn't going to be the last time my brain would be bouncing about inside my skull while we were clamped together at the wrist, unaware of anything but the need for me to try and soak it up. But it was the time that put us back in our bubble.
The unholy mix of chemicals produced a reaction way out of his control. Being Starsky, he was trying to beat it back, but failing on every count. He didn't even know what he was fighting anymore, but even without any strength he had this knuckle-headed tenacity. Trouble was, it was doing him more harm than good right now, threatening to breach the livid needlepoint that tracked just out of sight under the bandaging. I hung on and I hung on, all but arm wrestling him, bracing my feet on the floor, locking every joint, until the convulsing stopped.
My hand and arm had gone numb and I heard my partner's breathing -- still wheezy as hell but not frantic anymore. His hand had gone quiet in mine, just twitching once or twice. After the bruising grip I'd had on him now I just kept a light hold of the very tips of his fingers. They were freezing cold. All his heat was curled up inside trying to keep the engine running.
When I got my head up, he was looking at me calmly, his face covered in a thick layer of sweat, with those hard, bright spots in his eyes that told me delirium wasn't far away.
Nick wasn't far away either. He was watching it all from safety behind the glass. I stayed where I was until I saw that the feverish night was coming up fast behind Starsky and he didn't know I was there anymore. Then I got up and went out to Nick, and he just said, "Think maybe it's time I headed home."
I couldn't believe what I was hearing.
"I think it's time I went. I need to keep my job."
Nicky, you are such a kid, I might have said. Tonight's another night he may not make.
"He needs you," was what came out, mechanical. "Your brother needs you, Nick."
"I'm not sure, Hutch." He hung his head, a very Nick Starsky pose. "Not sure he's ever needed me."
"And your Ma?"
"Jesus, he takes better care of her from 3,000 miles away. I've always been better at looking after myself -- besides..." and he motioned through the glass, "I can't do that stuff."
"It's easy, Nick, you could do it," I said, although it wasn't and I knew he couldn't.
"Nah." He shook his head. "You win the prize, Hutchinson. You get to be the brother for now."
"It's not a competition."
He grinned at me then. He knew the score and so did I. "Oh yes," he said. "Yes it is. And anyway, he made his choice back there."
I didn't understand that bit. Didn't know what Starsky could have done, or said, in his current state, that would have made any sense. I'd accepted long ago that they'd had all these years, shared their growing-up, laid down the kind of foundations I just didn't have.
"Just one more thing," Nick said, before he turned around and left. "At the funeral... I get to be the brother. I get to make all the decisions and I'll say what needs to be said. All you gotta do is turn up and keep quiet. OK?" He patted me on the side of the arm. " Just so we know where we stand."
Then off he went, up the corridor and round the corner. He didn't even go in to say goodbye.
It was getting late. I'd told Ma Starsky I'd do the night shift again and she was happy for that.
There was a bunch of stuff I could have done first. There was a place I could have gone for a bit of sleep, I had a stomach that needed filling and a caffeine center in the brain that badly needed a hit.
But I slipped back inside and sat down.
And somewhere in that long night of struggle and crisis Starsky moved his arm a little away from his side and reached for contact. He opened his hot eyes for a few seconds and sought me out, to make sure. Then he closed them again, ready to fight on a bit longer.
He knew I'd turned out for the home team and he wasn't surprised.
He knew exactly where I stood.