Chapter 1: one
The Last Night of a New Day
Part one of four
The slap of a hand and the slam of a door ended Davey's childhood.
He stood on the front stoop for one second longer than necessary, his pulse pounding in his ears like a basketball slamming against the court, drowning out all other sounds. Cars going by, the rattle of a bus and the yowl of Mrs. Warshawsky's cat were like muffled reminders of a life that he was no longer part of.
His feet had wings, propelling him down the sidewalk toward something unknown, and away from what he could no longer abide. Fiery anger kept him going, taking him far from the small apartment, his mother's duplicity and his brother's sly grin.
He'd been smacked before, numerous times by his father. He was used to that, used to spending the night locked in a dark closet without any supper.
But this was different.
She'd never hit him before.
He'd never called her a Jezebel before.
That didn't make the print of her hand on his cheek sting any less. Didn't settle the score.
Davey paused to take a breath on the corner of Second and Twenty-third, fine vibrations running the length of his spine, agitating his belly.
Keep moving, keep moving. Go, go, go. Run, as far and as fast as he could.
There was nothing left for him here. She'd proven where her loyalties lay, and it was no longer with her eldest son.
Ideas bounced around his brain; bright, astonishing plans that glittered like the Emerald City in Oz. He'd grab a bus, leave New York behind, become the man that the rabbi had said he was. He'd recited the Torah for his bar mitzvah in front of the congregation just a couple of weeks ago. Nowhere in the ancient words did it say - in Hebrew or in English - that he had to stick around to witness the utter devastation of the Starsky family.
God damn her. Betraying all that had been the foundation of his life up until this point.
Davey plowed through the crowds along popular shopping streets, pushing past people without acknowledging a friendly greeting or even the call of his own name. This was no longer his home. He would never return. That was a solemn vow.
How he got to Grand Central Station, he was never sure. The last twenty blocks hadn't even registered. Davey dug into his pocket, closing his fist around his entire life's savings.
The original day's plan had been to go out on a fine Saturday afternoon and buy a bicycle. It wasn't new by any means, but it would have been new to him. The two-wheeled, shiny red bike had been featured in the window of Ron's Pawn Shop for two months. Every kid in the neighborhood had drooled over the sleek metal frame and speedy looking tires but Davey was one of the few who actually had a job and could save up his pennies and dimes. He had nineteen bucks and twenty nine cents from his paper route. Just enough to pay for the bike with some left over - he'd hoped - for a cherry coke and a couple of Hershey bars.
Now that money was his life line; a means to get as far away from the lower east side as humanly possible on nineteen dollars and odd change.
Skirting the massive building that was Grand Central Station, Davey made it around back, firming up his escape. There was no real need to spend the money on a ticket when he could hop aboard a train and be as far away as Pennsylvania in a couple of hours.
He'd had plenty of practice jumping on and off of the slow moving freight trains that trundled along the tracks near his neighborhood. Easy as falling off a log.
Davey crouched low behind a pile of metal railroad ties, watching the massive engines pulling lines of Pullman cars and boxcars out of the terminal yard toward new horizons. One of those trains would be meant just for him. He squinted, figuring out which trains were headed north and which west.
That's where he was going. West.
The golden state, where it was sunny all the time. The furthest west he could get and still be in the United States. He'd learned about Alaska and Hawaii in geography, which were poised to become states sooner or later, but getting to Hawaii would require a boat.
He wasn't even sure how to get to Alaska, which was really close to Russia, according to Mrs. Marcello, the teacher. There were still a couple of Starskys in Russia, judging from the one letter his mother had received with Russian stamps on it, but the relatives in California were a whole lot closer. And they spoke English.
California. Davey rolled the exotic name around on his tongue, tracking a train moving slowly to the left with his eyes. He had to stay hidden until just the right moment so that the rail yard workers didn't catch him. If he was grabbed by one of those men across the way, the ones who manned the switches, they’d call his mother. Send him home.
That was not going to happen. Ever.
He cupped his cheek, still feeling the hot, tender spot where she'd hit him.
Two trains passed in front of him, packed with happy families who loved each other. Fathers who took their sons fishing off the pier, mothers who packed school lunches of bologna sandwiches made with Wonder bread, brothers who played stick ball in the alley until the street lights came on.
None of them had to carry kosher brisket between two slices of brown homemade bread to school or wear a yarmulke pinned precariously onto unruly curls. None of them had to watch their father be gunned down…
Starsky squeezed his eyes shut, shoving away the image, and went back to thinking about bologna and brisket. Brisket simmering on the stove, surrounded by turnips and carrots - he loved what his mother cooked, it was just embarrassing to carry the old country fare to school when all his friends had American food. Ah, but Matzo ball soup and a big fat knishe would taste swell right about now. Or maybe a bubbly egg cream while he watched Mr. Zelleger spread a smear on an onion bagel at the corner deli.
Crap, he was hungry. Going into the station to buy something would waste time and money. Firming his resolve, Davey stretched out his forefinger and opened his eyes. He was pointing directly at a train idling three tracks over, going in the right direction.
It was now or never.
Glancing over at the station guard, Davey grinned. A large woman had cornered the blue uniformed man, prattling on about some infraction. There wouldn't be any problem from either one of them. As long as Davey could boost himself up into the open door of that red car, he was in like Flynn.
He trotted across empty tracks towards his destination, keeping his head down low. No shouts of discovery erupted behind him. No one came after him.
Not his mother. Not Nicky.
Davey sped up just as a low rumble coming through the soles of his well-worn Keds signaled that the train was beginning to roll. His heart in his throat, he gauged the distance between himself and the red car, running faster. The long line of cars trundled past him, pulling out of the station yard, and Davey ran full out, thigh muscles burning, lungs pumping like a bellows. With a mighty leap that would have gotten him a place on the high school track team, he twisted in the air and caught hold on the edge of the freight car.
Fear beat wildly in his chest. He could feel his fingers losing purchase on the slick metal door. If he fell now, he'd be crushed under the huge metal wheels of the train or thrown into the path of the train on the parallel tracks. Either way, he'd be killed.
Legs churning, Davey swung up and over, landing roughly in the car, and skidding on his belly to crash into a pile of wooden crates. He lay still, exhausted, trying to suck in enough oxygen to satisfy his aching lungs. The rackety motion of the train thundered through his stomach, reminding him that he was still hungry. No hope of food for a while.
But he was on his way.
Davey sat up, pulling his t-shirt down over the scrapes on his belly. Nothing new. He'd had worse sliding into first base in the dirt lot back home.
That was already behind him. A memory he only wanted to forget.
Glimpses of the lower East Side flashed past him as the train picked up speed, pieces of his life that were now only history. Nothing left here for Davey Starsky, no sir-ee.
Bracing himself against the metal wall, Davey shoved the sliding door closed, shutting himself away from everything that reminded him of what had been.
He hunkered down against a crate, drawing his knees up under his chin. He'd never gone to another state before. He rode the subway all the time but this was only the second time he'd been on an actual train, except to jump on and then off again. He'd gone with parents and his Uncle Schlomo to upstate New York once to attend a cousin's wedding, but that was the full extent of his traveling experience.
There'd been some kind of break down on the tracks, slowing the train and causing them to miss the wedding - but not the reception - which made the entire journey seem even longer than it had been.
How long would it take to get to wherever this train was going? Davey certainly hoped it was headed for Pennsylvania, but what if it wasn't? What if his mother figured out he'd headed for Grand Central Station and called the cops on him? Demanded they stop the train?
He could hear the honking refrain of the warning alarm as the train crossing barriers went down over the road the tracks crossed, and for a split second, the whine of a police car siren screamed over the alarm. Were the police coming for him?
Davey wrapped his arms around his knees, waiting, sure that someone would come bursting into the train as it slowed, snatch him up and return him to his mother. He trembled when the siren careened past, the sound dissipating into the distance.
So not for him, then.
The train continued on its westward journey, across the Hudson River, through little towns in New Jersey and on to Pennsylvania. One time, as the train pulled out of a station, Davey slid the door open just enough to look out so that he could see a whole different state, but Passaic reminded him of New York. And the faint smell of chicken cooking that wafted his way just made him hungrier than he already was.
Raising his face to the sun for a moment, Davey took a deep breath. This was his destiny. He was going west to be a man, just like all the pioneers before him. He could learn to ride a horse out west, maybe work on a ranch. He wasn't entirely sure what one did on a ranch, except herd cattle, but if Audie Murphy could do it, then so could he. And Audie Murphy was a war hero, so he was the kind of person his ma always told him to look up to, not like some people.
A particular person that his mother was now stepping out with.
Damn her, anyway. Damn her for ruining everything.
He'd thought having his father gunned down in the street - Davey squeezed his eyes closed, shoving that memory as far back as he could push it. He'd vowed never to remember that day ever again.
If that day had been the worst ever, then today came very, very close.
He'd learned a long time ago that the best way to deal with the bad stuff was to just forget about it. Forget that it had ever happened and focus on what comes next. Because whatever the future held, it had to be better than the past. Always keep moving forward.
The thockety-thockety sound of the metal wheels rolling on the tracks lulled him to sleep, curled up on top of a burlap sack.
Over the next day and a half, Davey found out that Philadelphia was a dark gray city on the Schuylkill River and that Cincinnati, Ohio was on the Ohio River. He thought his geography teacher would be very impressed by the education he was getting without setting foot inside a classroom.
Which led him to wonder if Joey Mancuso had beat up that little weenie, Carl Weinhaus, or if Sharman Crane missed him, and if she'd finished the birdhouse they were all making in shop class. Looked like he'd never get a chance to finish his.
Davey bit down on his bottom lip, fighting tears. Except men never cried. That's what his Grandfather Starsky told him at his father's funeral. Men bucked up. They took it on the chin and kept going.
Taking a deep breath, Davey kicked his feet against the cement wall he was perched on, overlooking the Ohio River. The train he'd been riding had let out all the passengers in Cleveland and moved onto a switchover track to head back east. The last thing he'd wanted to do. Davey had jumped off and wandered out of the train yard, uncertain of what his next move should be.
As he stood there, he'd spotted a small diner housed in an old railway car. There had been no other destination in mind once he smelled the delicious aromas coming out of the place.
A milkshake, cheeseburger and a heap of French fries later, the hunger pains in his belly had finally abated. The waitress had her nametag pinned over a ruffly hanky and she'd winked at him.
"On an adventure, sweetheart?" Edna asked and handed him the handwritten bill. He'd burped and reluctantly parted with two dollars of his hard earned cash.
Seventeen dollars and some jingly change left. That was not going to last him all the way to California at this rate.
The trash cans out back had yielded two bruised apples and an unopened bottle of Coca-cola. He'd tucked all into his back pockets, determined never to go for almost two whole days without food ever again and started for the highway. Maybe somebody would give him a ride.
Luck had been with him in the form of an older lady who reminded him of Mrs. MacInerny who lived in 2B, one floor below them. She was driving a green 1934 Ford and pulled over to the side of the road. The passenger side window rolled down and bright blue eyes peered out at Davey. "Where are you headed, young man?"
Stunned at this immediate good fortune, Davey didn't have an immediate answer. He wasn't even sure where he was yet.
"I'm going to Cincinnati, to visit my sister," the old woman added, apparently unconcerned with Davey's silence.
"Cincinnati is good!" Davey blurted out. He was pretty sure that was in the state of Ohio. Anywhere was good as long as he kept getting further away from the lower east side.
The old lady's name was Eulalie Lassiter and she smelled like old clothes, but she got him to Cincinnati where her sister Eunice lived. During the ride, Mrs. Lassiter gave him three cookies from the two dozen she'd been bringing to Eunice.
Davey gobbled down one immediately and then remembered his vow never to go hungry again. If he saved the other two, he'd have a decent meal for later. Proud of himself, Davey muttered a thank you and held the bag on his lap.
"You're all by yourself?" She drove just slightly under the speed limit, the other cars racing past with ease.
"Yes, ma'am." He spotted a sign that pointed toward Cincinnati and thought about eating another one of the cookies. If he kept his mouth full, he wouldn't have to answer any of her questions. He thought about what his mother would have said about him taking a ride from a stranger. And then he thought about his relatives in California. "I'm going to visit my aunt. My mother's sister."
"Now we're getting somewhere!" Mrs. Lassiter had pinched Davey's cheek, right in the same spot his mother's palm had landed. "Where does your aunt live?"
"I'm supposed to meet her…" He'd scrambled mentally for a story just as they crested a hill into Cincinnati and he could see a twisty river up ahead. Aunt Rosie lived in California, supposedly near the ocean. "By the… river." He embellished his tale, weaving fantasy with reality. "There's a bench, along the river. It's the last place we ever saw Uncle Reuben…" Davey ducked his head, feeling a hot flush warm his cheeks. His father would have blistered his butt for such a blatant fib. "Before he drowned."
The falsehood had come amazingly easily, especially since it was only partly a lie. He really did have an Uncle Reuben who had drowned. Of course, it hadn't happened in Cincinnati, but in three feet of standing water on D-day. He just neglected to mention that part to the kind old woman.
"Oh my, how horrible!" Mrs. Lassiter exclaimed. She stopped the car, searching the riverside for a woman who was not likely to appear. "I don't see anyone down that way."
"She'll come," Davey said, mustering up bravado. "She's probably just late. And we'll have dinner after. Uncle Reuben's favorite—" He almost slipped and said zrazy, which was his own favorite, succulent sirloin stuffed with mushrooms and bacon. "Irish stew."
"Good luck to you, Davey," she'd said with sympathy in her eyes and left him by the river.
Davey ate the rest of the cookies with one apple and downed the Coke, watching boats on the water. Ever since the earlier cheeseburger and milkshake, he kept expecting his mother, not to mention the rabbi, to come yell at him for eating tref. He'd never had cheese and meat together before, but it was really tasty. What was the use of being kosher if it kept him from such wonderful meals, anyway?
His mother would have frowned at a meal of cookies and cola, too. She was big on the food of her childhood, Polish meals heavy on the cabbage, like her favorite stew, bigos. Davey's mouth watered even though he'd just eaten two chocolate chip cookies.
Except thinking of that comforting dinner brought back less comforting memories. His mother last week, pink cheeked from cooking in the kitchen, with that strange and secret smile on her face. A smile he hadn't seen in years, not since he was very small, before his parents had taken to yelling at each other every single night. Davey never quite learned to keep his mouth shut when they started in on each other, or worse, when they started in on him. A dark closet without dinner had almost been a haven on some of those nights.
Nicky'd always watched silently, his narrow face pale and his eyes wide with some inner thrill that Davey never understood. But, invariably, Davey would wade in between his parents, shouting back at them.
The last time was the night before his father…
He kicked his heels against the cement wall, hard enough to hurt bad. No more of that. No more stupid memories of his mother taking them to the synagogue on Friday nights, and watching her sad eyes catch the flicker of the flames from the candles.
No more seeing her standing in the kitchen, making pierogis for him, the man she'd been seeing. The man who had divided the Starsky family.
He was his own man now, headed west.
Davey hitchhiked for the next week, sometimes traveling only a few miles, sometimes gaining another state. He'd acquired an old leather satchel along the way, to keep his food in, and the trinkets and souvenirs he found. He acquired a grimy map of the states outside an abandoned gas station. It had red and blue squiggly lines showing every connecting roadway in the US, and he liked to run his finger from east to west, tracing his journey An only partially used composition notebook had became his favorite companion. He wrote down each city and state he arrived in, using the list as a gauge of his journey. Originally, there had been twelve states to cross, if he drew a line directly from New York to California. Already, he'd gone through seven of them, and was currently cooling his heels in Wisconsin, which was known for its dairies and cheese.
Davey wrote that down in his notebook, chewing on a cheese sandwich that the last driver had given him.
His mother had always warned him about hitchhiking, especially when he wheedled a ride from Mrs. MacInerny, who couldn't see in the dark and often hit fire hydrants as well as the curb when she parked. But so far, Davey'd had nothing but pleasant rides from good people who not only gave him a ride, but frequently shared their lunches or dinners with him. One man had even supplied him with a coat that was only a little too big. As the nights got colder, Davey was really glad of the coat.
Twilight was coming earlier each day that he was out. Davey looked across the highway at a small cluster of houses grouped around a curved road. His eyes were drawn to the lighted windows as families gathered together for dinner and the typical evening activities of homework, card games and maybe watching Uncle Miltie on the television.
He had a sudden, almost overwhelming need to call his mother. If he found a phone, he could call collect. Surely she'd accept the charges from her prodigal son? And there was no way she'd be able to figure out where he was.
As long as he didn't answer the phone. As long as she wasn't making bigos for him.
Davey felt a wave of revulsion, and quickly wrapped the rest of the cheese sandwich in a piece of old newspaper. He could easily imagine the heavyset man perched in the chair his dad used to sit in, his bulbous nose sniffing eagerly as Rachel Starsky set a steaming bowl of stew on the table.
He ground the heels of his hands into his eyes, rubbing away the gritty, raw feeling behind his eyeballs. His whole head hurt, his left cheek most of all, almost as if he could still feel the sting of his mother's hand a whole week later.
Did she even miss him? Because he never wanted to see her again. As long as she kept company with him,. The man who'd once called Davey's father his best friend.
Taking a deep breath, Davey peered down the highway with fading hope. Traffic was sparse tonight. Few cars had passed him in the last hour and not one had slowed down to pick up a lonely boy. He'd discovered that he was most successful if he gave the same lie that had half convinced Mrs. Lassiter. Incorporating partial truths into whatever story he was embellishing made remembering the details so much easier than having to create a whole new personality out of the air.
Which meant that the next time someone asked where he was headed, it had to be somewhere in Wisconsin or…. Davey frowned. Boy, it would have been really useful if he'd paid attention in geography class. Or studied harder to memorize the forty-eight states and their capitals. What was next to Wisconsin? He was pretty sure that it was one of the great lakes, but which one eluded him.
After slinging his leather book bag over one shoulder and across his chest, Davey started walking, kicking a rock along in front of him. There was a nice big sign up ahead, which would likely clue him into what city was the closest. It was amazing how many people didn't seem all that curious about a single boy on the side of the highway who said he was headed for the next city or the one beyond. As if they themselves hadn't read the roadway signs or paid attention to small details that caught Davey's eye.
One truck driver had been astonished when Davey pointed out that the names on several gravestones in a local cemetery corresponded to the name of the mayor of a small town in Northern Illinois. As they drove into the tiny hamlet, there was a 'Welcome to Pixley, population 450, Mayor Augland Sumpter' along with the usual symbols for the Lions club, 4-H and the Shriners. The name Sumpter also graced the sign over the market and the gas station, too. Maybe the truck driver had never stopped to spend the night curled up inside the abandoned caretaker's shack on the edge of the cemetery, and spent his morning wandering through a foggy graveyard munching on day-old donuts.
Davey found it endlessly fascinating to discover how many different sorts of people there were in the world. This helped to distract him from the aching loneliness that bowled him over at the weirdest times. He learned that if he just concentrated on talking to people or noticing odd things and interesting sights, then he didn't think about his mother and Nicky, back in New York.
Turned out that many people just didn't notice the stuff that Davey found fascinating. His father used to tell him that once he grew up and got a real job - "one that beats you down day in and day out, life'll just grind that curiosity right outta you, Davey-boy."
He could hear his dad's voice as loud as anything. Davey swung around, his heart thumping, sure that somehow, some magical way, Jacob Starsky would be standing there on the highway in Wisconsin, right next to him. "Dad…?"
No one. Not as if he'd expected anyone to be there. His father had been dead for nearly a year. Davey felt a sudden intense pain in his chest.
He'd forgotten to recite the Kaddish, the prayer for the dead. The rabbi had told him to do so every morning, to remember his father. He should have honored his father by respecting his religion. Instead, he'd paid about as much attention to the Kaddish as he had to Mrs. Marcello, the geography teacher.
But at least he'd thought about the Kaddish, about his father lying there in the… Davey swallowed the bile that rose in his throat, dry heaves coming up from his stomach, threatening to toss up the cheese sandwich.
Rachel Starsky hadn't even paid a single moment's regret to her husband's passing. That was obvious. She'd started working with him only a few months later, using the excuse that she had to make money to make ends meet.
"You think I like going out every morning, young man, while you and your brother wander the streets like hooligans?" his mother had shouted at him. "You think I want Mrs. MacInerny looking at me like I'm some kinda harlot, working when I should be caring for two kids like a drudge? No, thank you. I got a life, too, you know, David-look-just-like-your-father-Starsky. So shut your trap, 'cause if I hear from the principal of that school one more time..."
That's when he called her a Jezebel.
And she'd smacked him across the face.
Chapter 2: two
The blare of a big truck horn nearly gave Davey a heart attack. He stumbled, gasping for breath and ran smack into a wooden sign post.
The truck slowed, noxious fumes belching from its exhaust pipe and pulled up near where Davey stood. For a moment, he couldn't quite grasp why the truck had stopped. He'd been so wrapped up in memories that he hadn't even been paying attention to his surroundings.
Not good at all, Davey-boy.
Taking stock of where he was, Davey realized he'd walked quite a ways from the wall where he'd eaten his dinner. He'd banged into the sign that read: Minnesota state line. St. Paul 15 miles. He'd walked to the border without realizing it.
"Hey, kid." A big bellied man got out of his cab. He had a shiny bald head and a tattoo on his left arm that read Semper Fi, which Davey knew was the motto of the US Marines. "You need a lift? Not often that I see a kid your age all alone by the side of the road."
"I gotta get to St. Paul." Davey pointed to the sign above his head. "My Uncle Reuben drowned."
"That's terrible." The driver scratched behind his ear, regarding Davey with shadowed eyes. The sun had completely set, and it was only because of the truck's headlights that Davey could see the man at all. "You're on your own?"
So far, every single driver who'd picked Davey up had asked him that question but something about this man's voice was different.
"Yeah." His first inclination was to run away, but to where? He was already stuck out in the middle of Michigan because he'd run away. "Can you give me a lift?"
"Sure thing, kid, hop on board. Just don't tell my boss or he'd have my hide." The big man grinned, all teeth, but he seemed friendly. "I got a couple of Hershey bars in the truck, you hungry?"
All the time, Davey wanted to say but for once in his life, he didn’t blurt out the first thing that came to him.
"I'm Mitch Reiser." Mitch extended a big paw, gripping Davey's much smaller hand and drawing him toward the truck.
Warmth, a ride and the chance for a Hershey bar beckoned, and Davey nodded, climbing up into the high seat of the cab. He settled down, adjusting his shoulder bag to one side so that the notebook inside didn't poke him in the ribs.
"Since we'll be riding together, what's your name?" Mitch got into the driver's seat and started up the powerful engine.
"Glad to know you, Dave! If you look right in that glove box there, that's where I keep my stash of candy. Take whichever one you want."
Curious, Davey punched the button that opened the small compartment and gazed in awe at the riches. Mitch didn't just have Hershey bars, there was also Zagnuts, Mallomars and Bit-o-Honey. His mouth watered because he hadn't had any of those tasty treats since he left New York.
The truck rumbled back onto the highway, pointing toward St. Paul, Minnesota. "Found anything you like?" Mitch asked with a hearty laugh.
"Everything," he admitted. "Can I have the box of Mallomars?" The chocolate dipped marshmallow and graham cracker confections weren't kosher so he'd only had them once before, at Molly Doyle's birthday party. His mouth watered.
"I told you, you can have whatever you want." Mitch looked out at the road, but there was a smile on his round face. "So how old are you and how'd you get so far from New York?"
Caught in the act of tearing open the yellow wrapper, Davey looked up in surprise. "How'd you know?"
"That you were from 'da big Apple'?" he said in broad Brooklynese , which, in Davey's opinion, didn't sound a thing like the way he talked. "You have an accent, kid."
"Not from Brooklyn, I don't." Davey stuffed a whole Mallomar into his mouth, savoring the delectable combination of flavors.
"I stand corrected. The Bronx or Manhattan, I'm guessing."
That was too close for comfort. Davey chewed and swallowed with a vague nod.
"Hey, chalk one up for old Mitch, huh?" He scratched behind his ear again, frowning slightly. "I got that one so good, I'm gonna guess that you're about ten, maybe eleven."
"I was born in '47," he lied smoothly, cutting his age by two years. "You're smart." Davey ate another Mallomar. He watched the older man handle the massive steering wheel, his arm muscles bulging so that the Semper Fi seemed to jump and pop. Davey wasn't quite sure why he'd admitted to being younger, but something about Mitch made him cautious.
"Pretty young to be out on your own," Mitch commented. "Your parents must trust you a lot."
"Haven't lived with them in a while." He had a third treat, but a fourth didn't sound as good as usual. In fact, he wasn't really hungry anymore.
"Oh, sorry to hear that." Only, Mitch didn't really sound a bit sorry.
Davey looked up at him again, but the warmth of the truck cab, combined with a full stomach and the vibrations from the wheels were making him sleepy. He closed his eyes, leaning against the back of the seat and felt Mitch take the package of cookies out of his lap. Davey was just on the edge of sleep when he felt Mitch's hand slide over his narrow thigh and lightly flick the inside of his legs.
"Huh?" He sat up abruptly, opening his eyes wide, and yawned.
"Just knocking some crumbs off your jeans, Dave," Mitch said. "Go back to sleep, we'll be there in no time."
"I'm not so sleepy."
"Sure, you're not. I never wanted to go to bed until after ten when I was your age. You watch those westerns on TV?"
"At my friend Joey Bartolucci's house. Wagon Train and The Rifleman."
"Rifleman is one of my favorites," Mitch said as if he couldn't believe they would watch the same programs. "That kid, Johnny Crawford, who plays Mark’s a really good little actor, isn't he?"
"Yeah." Talking about watching television at Joey's house brought memories of Joey's mom's chocolate cake and tall glasses of milk. And Davey seeking sanctuary with the Bartoluccis while his parents fought.
"Probably the best one was when Mark made friends with that redskin kid."
"That one was okay, but I like it better when Chuck Connors is going after the bad guys." Davey yawned again, curling around so that he was leaning against the passenger seat door. "Him and Micah tracking them across the country and then the shoot-out. Blam, blam!" He blasted away the black hat scum with his forefingers.
"We like a lot of the same stuff. It's not often I meet someone with the same taste I got," Mitch said. "Where'd you say you were supposed to meet your Uncle?"
"My Aunt." Davey bent his legs up to his chest and rested his arms on his knees, his leather satchel tucked against the small of his back. "Uncle Reuben drowned, and I'm gonna meet Aunt Rose." He closed his eyes tiredly. It had been a while since he had such a warm, dry and comfortable place to sleep. This sure beat the freight car and the caretaker's shack in the cemetery.
"I need an address, Dave," Mitch reminded.
That was the last Davey heard for a while. He slid effortlessly into a dream where he and Johnny Crawford were watching Jacob Starsky get gunned down on TV. Reaching out to turn the channel, Davey moaned, feeling something pushing him down onto the sofa. Johnny Crawford laughed, only he sounded a lot more like a bad guy than nice Mark McCain.
Struggling to surface out of the dream, Davey cried out as something brushed his wiener, and this time, he wasn't wearing any pants. "Don't!"
He was lying on his back with his right leg hooked through the spokes on the steering wheel, and his jeans were dangling from his raised ankle. Mitch had one heavy arm pressed firmly against Davey's chest and the other hand caressing the boy's naked genitals.
"M-Mitch!" Davey squirmed, trying to get his foot free. He cried out when a thick, blunt finger poked his anus, pain cramping across his belly. What was he doing?
"Sshh, quiet, this won't take long, Dave," Mitch soothed, pushing his finger in harder. "You're sweet, kid. Nice and tight."
"No!" He jerked backwards, banging his head on the passenger door handle, but his foot was firmly wedged in through the steering wheel. Mitch's finger came free, which was little consolation when the big man smacked Davey across the jaw with his huge hand.
His ears ringing, Davey barely heard Mitch's voice. "I told you to be quiet, boy. You were just asking for this all along, weren't you?" He adjusted the position of his arm, leaning his weight on the boy's slight chest. "Standing there, just waiting for me to pick you up and give you what you were looking for."
Davey gasped, getting both arms up to push at his attacker. "Get away from me!" he yelled, putting all his strength into it. He was small for his age, but agile and fast, with a reputation as a street fighter. All of that came into play as Davey lunged upwards. Pain shot through his calf when he twisted around, and he slid off the bench seat, hanging for a moment by his imprisoned leg before his toes bent back and he got his ankle free. At the same time, he raised his left knee fast, catching Mitch in the nose. Blood spurted when sharp knee bone met much softer cartilage.
"Damn you!" Mitch roared, rearing back.
Davey had already grabbed the door handle and was turning it frantically, trying to get it open. He used up precious seconds before he realized that it was locked. Prying up the door lock, he tumbled out of the truck, the leather satchel hanging across his chest swinging wide like a pendulum. Davey hit the ground hard enough to knock the wind out of him.
What was Mitch trying to do?
Sucking air into lungs that seemed to have frozen solid, Davey yanked up his underwear and jeans, struggling to button the waistband. He'd lost his socks and shoes somewhere, no doubt in Mitch's truck, but there was no going back for them.
His heart beating so fast that it was an almost agonizing pain, Davey managed to get to his feet and run on jelly-filled legs. The truck was parked on the side of a dark road, a deserted spot where Mitch had planned something awful.
Davey ran, not wanting to think about what just happened. Not wanting to know if Mitch was coming after him or not. Why? Why? What was Mitch trying to do?
The sudden, blinding glare from the truck's headlights caught Davey in their beams like a mouse cornered by a cat. He froze, blood thundering in his ears so loudly that he almost missed the roar of the engine. The huge vehicle shuddered just before the wheels rolled forward, and Davey was sure that Mitch was going to mow him down. A tragic accident on the side of a county road.
When the truck lumbered past with a shockingly loud bleat from the horn, Davey sank to his knees, shaking with fear. He could still feel Mitch's big hands holding him down, forcing one finger up and in… Davey all knew about sex. He and Joey used to lie out in the park after dark, pretending to be Davy Crockett and George Russell, and in the anonymity of the night, they'd discussed the forbidden topics. Like just what was under a girl's starched crinolines?
The idea of kissing was exciting, but the exploration of a girl's body, touching under her Peter Pan collared shirt or hiking her skirt up to cop a feel, was truly a mystery. He'd fantasized about Sharman Crane with her perky little breasts just beginning to peak the front of her cashmere sweater, and broken out in a sweat.
What Mitch had done was completely different and as foreign as the most distant planet. What was that? The butt was just a dirty place, not meant for…
Davey trembled, huddled over his knees. Both feet were bare, and he suddenly missed his old, ratty sneakers with a horrible pang. His head ached and the side of his jaw throbbed where Mitch had hit him. The blackness of the night closed in on him, hiding him. The truck was gone and there was nothing else around him. Davey sank down, lost and alone.
Stray voices flickered through his brain, but for a long time, Davey refused to listen to them. Then one began to repeat, forcing its way into his consciousness.
"When you're going through hell, keep going."
He knew it was a quote by Winston Churchill because he'd had to read a biography on the Prime Minister of Britain for a history report, but the voice that kept saying it had a heavy Polish accent.
His Grandmother Pulaski had lived right above the Napolitano, a popular Italian restaurant about three blocks from the Starsky's apartment building. He could almost see the spry old woman standing right in front of him, holding out her gnarled hands with the bumpy knuckles. He could see the numbers tattooed on her left forearm just as she said, "When you're going through hell, keep going, dziecko."
She'd always called him dziecko, Polish for child, and the nickname, if not the entire quotation, somehow galvanized him. He had to keep moving forward - get out of here and on toward California. The coat that the nice man in St. Louis had given him was ripped, half of the sleeve missing. He wrapped his fingers around the thick strap of the leather satchel still firmly crossed over his chest. At least, his small cache of possessions was safe, and he had some food - the crust of the leftover cheese sandwich and a very bruised apple from the tree in the cemetery.
For a moment, he thought about the yellow package of Mallomars, but they no longer held any sort of allure. If he never ate another one as long as he lived, that would be too soon. Taking a resolute step, he started out and was surprised how much his right ankle hurt. He hadn't noticed the pain when he was running earlier.
Stopping to inspect his foot, he saw that the ankle was swollen and discolored, probably from wrenching it out of the steering wheel spokes. Nothing to be done about that. He bit down on his bottom lip and started off again. Every painful step brought back the scene in full Technicolor, like an endless loop of coming attractions at the movies; Davey waking up and being held down while Mitch stroked his penis, and then forced his finger into….
He moaned and ran, seeing a main road up ahead with the lights from cars illuminating the horizon. If he could get up there, he'd get into town and - what? Tell someone? Who would believe him? And besides, who would care? Nobody knew him. He was just some runaway kid with little money and no friends. His mother used to tell him that runaway kids were hooligans, just exactly what she'd called him right before he'd hurled "Jezebel" at her.
The police could arrest hooligans and throw them into a boys’ school, one of his mother's frequent threats, especially after his father died. "If you mouth off one more time, young man, it's the boys’ school for you."
While the warning had never caused him to change a particular behavior, since Davey had no real idea what would happen in a boys’ school, he was sure he didn't really want to go there. Sunny California, with its beaches and movie stars, was looking better every day.
Especially here in Wisconsin, no, make that Minnesota, where the wind had a decided chill through the ripped sleeve of his jacket, and the ground under his bare feet was icy.
Once he was on the main road, Davey felt less isolated. Cars whizzed by without stopping but at least he felt like there were other people nearby. Where he was exactly, he was not sure, but from the bright shine of neon lights and taller buildings to the south, he was fairly certain that Mitch must have bypassed St. Paul altogether. A road sign finally confirmed his suspicions. Stillwater was the closest city and Duluth the farthest away at
Crap. Davey hunkered down next to the sign to pull out his tattered map. There was no way he was heading up to Duluth. That was in the wrong direction entirely. Using his finger, he traced the straightest line all the way to Southern California. Even if he didn't count having to cross the entire state of Minnesota, there were still four states between here and his destination. And they were much larger states than the ones on the east coast. All were twice as big as the ones he'd already passed through.
Desperation tightened his chest. He'd never been one to get downhearted for long but suddenly the vast distance seemed insurmountable. What kind of idiot tried to cross the whole United States on his own? He was hungry, exhausted and sore, and now that he was willing to admit it, terrified.
He no longer wanted to get into a stranger's car. What if that happened again? Maybe, just maybe, if he called his mother…? Would she have enough money to bring him home? He doubted it. She often didn't have enough to take the subway to her job, so he had started picking her up.
Anger washed through him, the same fiery energy that had sent him out of the house on that fateful day. Davey folded the map carefully along the worn-in creases and stuffed it into his satchel. He'd record his entry into Minnesota later, once he'd gotten a little further. Maybe after he found a place to rest.
He used the wooden sign post to pull himself upright. A big rig slowed slightly as it approached and the stink of rubber against the blacktop made him cough. He gripped the post, feeling splinters dig into his fingers, but he didn't care. It was Mitch, come back to get him.
Oh, please, not again…
And then the blue truck was past him, belching noxious exhaust.
A blue truck, not a white one. Davey closed his eyes, swaying wearily. He could picture the writing on the side of Mitch's truck as if it had burned into his brain. Mitch Reiser, there for all your trucking needs. Elmwood, Ohio. Green letters on a white truck, with a little picture of a green and white smiling truck hauling smiling produce.
Davey puked, losing all the Mallomars in a single, caustic gush. His throat was raw, burning from the bile, and he could taste the tang of blood on his lower lip. It had been a long time since he’d vomited - and even longer since there was anyone there to give him a cool sip of water afterwards. His mother disliked sick children and had generally left Grandma Pulaski with Davey and Nicky when they had the flu, or that time when both children had lain in a darkened room for ten days with the measles. After Grandma died, Davey had just had to deal with any illness on his own because Rachel had always been at work with him.
He barely heard the car that pulled onto the soft shoulder until it was too late. He was exposed, with nowhere to run. A car door banged open and footsteps approached, but Davey was too tired to try to escape.
"Are you okay?" a voice asked.
Not Mitch. Not even close. Davey straightened, wiping his mouth with the back of his left hand, and eyed the newcomer.
Not even a man. More like a kid of approximately his own age, although much taller than Davey, with blond hair that gleamed like silver in the beam of the headlights. He had on a suit jacket, shirt and tie, something Davey only had to wear at high holidays in the synagogue, and the car behind him was a 1956 Ford Fairlane.
"Do you need some help?" the boy asked. "You look sick."
"I'm okay." Davey backed up, away from the salvation of his sign post.
"Kenny!" a woman called, sticking her head out of the driver side window. "Come on! Ask him if he needs a ride or get back in the car with your sister."
"We just left St. Paul," Kenny said. "We live in Duluth. Where are you going?"
He sounded friendly, almost kind, but Davey was wary. "Why?'
The boy laughed, a sweet, high-pitched sound that proved his voice hadn't broken completely yet. "Helping strangers. I could get a merit badge for this."
That was something Davey understood. Killing two birds with one stone.
"Besides, you're a mess." Kenny waved a hand at Davey's dirty clothes and bloody face. "And you just had a sick." He wrinkled his nose fastidiously. "C'mon with us. We can drive you. Where are you going?"
"Duluth," Davey answered without hesitation.
"Kenny - make that Ken Hutchinson, since I'm thirteen." He stuck out his hand, eyed Davey's grimy paws and nodded instead.
"You and I can sit in the back." Ken ushered him to the Fairlane. It was by far the newest, nicest car that Davey ever been in. "Karen always gets to sit in the front because she gets carsick."
"I already done that, don't worry," Davey said. He couldn't explain why, but he felt immediately accepted and comforted the moment he sat down. There were no cookies or candy in the glove compartment, and no man leering at him. He shuddered, remembering Mitch's eyes. He'd wanted them to be friendly, but they hadn't been. Not at all.
By comparison, Ken was open and cheerful with honest concern. The woman driving, Ken's mom most probably, was glamorous in a way that Davey wasn't used to moms being. She had blond hair like some movie star, Dinah Shore or maybe Doris Day.
"His name's Dave Starsky," Kenny told his mother.
"Davey?" She looked over her shoulder in greeting, her blue eyes exactly like her son's. "Are you sick? Can we get you to a phone to call someone? I've never seen such a young boy out by the side of the roadway by himself."
"I'm thirteen," Davey said, hoping that explained things. After all, according to the rabbi, he was a man. The smooth ride of the car was nothing like Mitch's truck or even Uncle Marvin's rattle-trap Chevrolet. The engine sounded like it was purring.
"Short." Kenny eyed him with a slightly superior smile.
Davey was surprised that the statement didn't make him angry, only annoyed, the way an off-hand comment from one of his friends back home would have done. If Joey Bartolucci had said he was short, he would have slugged him in the arm, softly, just to prove that he’d heard the insult and didn't mind. If anyone else had, it would have been a knuckle sandwich right to the nose. Ken would have gotten the friendly punch in the arm, on another day. Davey just shoved his cold hands under his thighs to help warm them up.
"We were in St. Paul 'cause…"
"Speak correctly, Kenny," his mother reminded. "Because." She sounded as tired as Davey felt, but didn't hurl any abuse at her son the way his mother would have.
"Because," Ken repeated with a raise of one eyebrow that almost made Davey laugh. "My uncle died. Went to a funeral." He lifted his blue tie and flipped the end. That time, Davey felt the urge to laugh ripple up through him like a little caterpillar.
"Mother," a little voice from the front seat piped up. "Can we eat somewhere? I'm hungry."
"I don't want to stop again, sweetie," Mrs. Hutchinson said. "Aunt Eva packed some leftovers from the reception in the bag. Kenny, is it by your feet?"
"Yes, ma'am." Ken rolled his eyes at Davey, almost as if he really was trying to get a laugh out of him, and hauled up a blue bag. Inside, there were numerous bundles all wrapped in wax paper. Ken half opened a couple, checking the contents. "Karen, you want some roast beef or some chicken?"
Davey still hadn't seen her. The top of her head was below the top of the car seat, but he imagined her to be a female version of Ken, or a smaller version of her mother. Very blond, blue eyes, maybe wearing something frilly and pink like his cousin Ida had worn at Passover. No, they'd been to a funeral, so maybe something somber like the blue dress that cousin Sarah wore last…
"You want something?" Ken held out one of the wax paper bundles. He'd already helped himself to some roast beef and the smell was permeating the back seat.
Davey swallowed fast, his stomach undecided. His head ached abysmally and his throat still burned, but amazingly, he was hungry. "You got anything to drink?"
"There's a thermos of tea there, Kenny. Give him some of that. It would be good for his stomach." Mrs. Hutchinson glanced back, her light blue eyes catching Davey. His belly lurched, but in a strangely good way. She was being nice. "Have you been feeling sick all day, Davey? Do you have a fever? Lean forward and let me feel your forehead."
"No fever." Davey hung back, his heart pounding unnecessarily. He had nothing to fear from these people. "Uh, ma'am. I - uh."
"His lip is bleeding." Smaller blue eyes bored into him from around the edge of the front passenger seat. A heart-shaped face with white blond hair topped with a dark blue bow. Karen. "Did you get in a fight like Kenny?"
"I did not get—" Ken reacted immediately, poking his forefinger at his sister.
"Children!" Mrs. Hutchinson said sharply. "Do I need to pull the car over?"
"No, ma'am." Ken sat back with a murderous expression. He fumbled with a red and black plaid thermos and poured tea into the cup that fit onto the top.
"No," Karen said stubbornly. "I still think he looks like he got in a fight."
"I fell out of a truck." Davey took the tea and drank quickly. It was tepid, but flashbacks of drinking tea with his Grandma blossomed with every sip. She'd always given him tea when he was sick. Tall glasses of strong, spicy tea in a glass, sweetened with honey for his throat. "A man—" He stopped horrified. He'd never meant to say a word about the encounter with Mitch, and here he was practically spilling the beans all because of a little kindness and tea.
"Oh, God," Mrs. Hutchinson said softly in a way that almost shattered Davey's heart. She glanced back at him again, her face full of something painful and sad, her lips pinched tightly together. Abruptly, she changed the subject without interrogating him about Mitch. "Sweetheart, where are your parents? Where are you headed?"
Starring into the dregs of the tea cup, Davey altered his usual tale of drowned Uncle Reuben and Aunt Rose, relocating them to… where were they headed for now? His head was pounding and his jaw ached, not to mention the weird little pain in his butt that he tried to ignore at all costs. "Duluth," he said finally.
"You're going there all on you own?" There was admiration in Ken's voice.
"My ma had to stay at her job, but Aunt Rose was going to meet me in…" His mind slid through all the cities he'd been in. "Uh, Elmwood…" Crap! Not there, of all places. "Uh - St. Louis, but her car broke down so I…"
"Davey," Mrs. Hutchinson said in a way that brooked no dishonesty. "Did you run away?"
For a moment, he thought she meant run away from Mitch, and had figured out what had happened. Davey startled, spilling the last drops of tea on his lap. Luckily, it wasn't hot, but tears burned behind his eyes which made him angry, which made him tough. Men don't cry. She'd meant from home. That he was a runaway. Some little hooligan.
Ken was looking at him with a mixture of awe and respect, tempered with astonishment, and Davey was stunned to realize that he could read all that on another boy's face. "I…" He glanced between the friendship in Ken's to the side of Mrs. Hutchinson's face. "Yes, ma'am. I left home."
"In New York?" she guessed.
How did everyone know that? They were the ones with accents.
"The lower east side," he admitted, feeling something lift inside him. It almost felt good not to have to lie about the sort-of fictional aunt and uncle. He thought of Ma and Nicky, sitting at the cigarette burn-scarred kitchen table, eating bigos and pierogis. The weird almost-need-to-cry welled up for a moment.
"Manhattan?" Mrs. Hutchinson said with a slight upswing at the end of the word as if she was surprised, even though he thought she'd figured that one out.
Ken set a packet of roast beef in a roll in Davey's lap without speaking, his long fingered hand lingering for a moment on Davey's arm, Some kind of comfort gesture, but Davey couldn't do anything at all, or risk looking like a baby in front of this wonderful family.
"How long ago?" Mrs. Hutchinson asked quietly.
How long? The days had run together like watercolors on a wet paper. "What's today?" Davey asked miserably. The meat smelled heavenly. He hadn't had roast beef in ages.
"October tenth." Kenny took a bite from his own snack.
Yom Kippur. The day of atonement.
Davey sucked on his lip, tasting the slight tang of blood where Mitch's ring - when had he remembered the ring? - had cut him, wanting to tell Mrs. Hutchinson everything. "Nine days," he said finally.
"Oh, my." Mrs. Hutchinson sighed, shaking her head and Davey was suddenly sure she was going to leave him by the side of the highway. She reached out and touched Karen's hair, toying with the ribbon on top of her head.
His chest tight with disappointment, Davey turned away, looking out the window at the Minnesota scenery going by. There wasn't much to see, it was an almost moonless night and the dark trees looked like witches with long bony fingers reaching up to the black sky. Stars spread across the heavens, little spots of brilliance. He put his finger on the window, pretending he could reach out to one of those stars as easily as Flash Gordon flying in his spaceship to battle Emperor Ming. He just wanted to be somewhere else, where he belonged.
"Davey. I'm taking you home with us," Mrs. Hutchinson said firmly, as if she'd made a decision.
"What?" He hadn't expected that at all.
"To stay with us?" Ken grinned just as he'd taken a bite of roast beef sandwich. He looked eagerly at Davey. "I always wanted a brother."
"Kenny, we have to find out where he belongs," Mrs. Hutchinson said, facing straight ahead, but Davey could see her reflection in the windshield. She looked like she was going to cry.
"And he needs a bath," Karen said with an exaggerated sniff.
Davey was overwhelmed. "I got a brother," he said to the boy beside him. "But I'd trade you for him."
"Swell." Ken tapped his sandwich against Davey's uneaten one as if they were toasting with wine glasses. "Eat."
Hearing his stomach growl, Davey practically wolfed down the entire thing, giddy with relief and happiness.
Mrs. Hutchinson cleared her throat with a little cough. "When was the last time you spoke with your father and mother?"
"My pop's dead."
"My father lives in Oregon." Karen peeked around the front seat.
"Karen!" her mother admonished.
"Mother, it's not like he's going to care," Ken groaned. "He's not on the Duluth social register or anything." He shrugged, giving a fairly good impression of someone who didn't care either. But it was easy to see that was just a façade. "Mother and Father are getting a divorce. Father moved out with…"
"Kenneth Robert Hutchinson." There was a harsh rasp in her voice that didn't go with her movie star prettiness. "That's personal."
"Yes, ma'am," he responded.
"My ma and I don't get along," Davey put in hastily.
"Davey," Mrs. Hutchinson said with a tight little laugh. "That's what happens with all thirteen year olds." She glanced at a road sign with a frown. "We'll be home in just under an hour. If you're sleepy, get some shut eye until then, but first, Kenny give me a sandwich, too, please."
Davey watched the Hutchinsons with astonishment. Mrs. Hutchinson had said please for no reason, just to be nice. And Ken acted like a typical older brother to Karen, but still far nicer than Davey had ever been to Nicky. Probably because Karen seemed a whole lot nicer than Nicky was, the bratty, conniving little sneak.
"You hitched all the way from New York?" Ken asked softly, pulling his legs up on the bench seat so that he sat with his back against the car door, facing Davey. "That must have been really exciting. The only places I ever go is to St. Paul or my Granddad's farm."
Exciting? Not very much. Davey almost laughed except he knew exactly what Ken meant. Until nine days ago, he would have thought it sounded exciting, too. "It was, at first," he said. "I jumped on a train. Like bein' a hobo in a movie."
Ken looked over at him with surprising empathy. "Only it wasn't, huh?"
"No." Davey blinked to get rid of the tears that kept pricking his eyeballs. "I had to get away. My ma…" He shrugged. "She's not like yours."
"I got a good mother," Ken said affectionately. "When did your father die?"
"Last year." As usual, Davey had to choose his words carefully. He hadn't ever bawled like a baby in front of anyone yet, but it was always a near thing. Everything had changed for the worse after Jacob Starsky was gunned down in the street. Davey didn't want to blame his father for the crap their lives had become, but it was almost hard not to. If he'd lived, Davey's mother would not have gone to work with his father's best friend, the mobsters would have stayed where they belonged, and none of the last couple of weeks would have ever, ever happened. "He got in trouble with some… people. Durniak's enemies, so to piss off…" He stopped. He'd already said the name one too many times. Amending the tale just a bit, he finished with, "My pop got shot when he was coming home one night."
"You saw it?"
Davey looked down at his grubby hands. He probably should have washed before he ate. Or at least said a blessing. Now he'd get the plague or something like that on top of everything else. His ma had always shouted, "Bundle up and wash your hands or you'll catch your death!"
"I'm sorry, Davey." Ken held out a piece of chocolate cake in consolation. "I shouldn't pry. My mother says I'll make a great lawyer 'cause I'm always asking questions."
The chocolate cake looked tempting but Davey was suddenly wary again, his gut spasming with fear for no reason at all. The Hutchinsons had been nothing but nice to him. Mrs. Hutchinson hadn't even left him at the side of the road like that time a couple days ago when a woman had dumped him out because he'd accidentally said a swear word in her car. He should have known better then. Now?
Davey took the cake hesitantly, feeling stupid and ggullible at the same time. Ken was a nice guy, probably the nicest boy he'd ever known. Even Joey Bartolucci's family wouldn't have picked up a filthy, lost boy on the side of a highway at night and invited him to eat their food and go home to sleep in their house.
"Thanks," he mumbled, pushing his finger into the fudgy icing. He licked off the chocolate. It was amazingly good. "I didn't… see it."
He could still feel the hot, sticky humidity of a late August evening. He and Nicky had been on the fire escape, playing cops and robbers. Nicky was Al Capone and Davey was a G-man. It was an old, familiar game. Davey hadn't been all that interested, but they were both bored and hot. Dinner had been bowls of weak soup without any meat, only cabbage, so they were both still hungry. He could remember every detail so vividly, as if it had happened yesterday. Nicky pointing his finger like a pistol. His mouth had formed the word 'blam' just as a sharp noise came from the street.
Real gunfire, not some pretend shot.
There'd been the bleat from a car horn and a choked off scream as two more gunshots rent the air, and then absolute silence. Davey had clattered down the fire escape, his feet making loud clanging sounds on the risers. He'd jumped the last few feet off the end of the hanging metal ladder and landed a few feet from the street - where his father lay bleeding from three gunshots to the chest.
"I h-heard it," Davey said finally to Ken, to banish the pictures replaying in his mind's eye. "That's all. He died before the ambulance came."
"That's awful!" Ken patted Davey's arm again, a rough but there caress that soothed something deep inside the boy's heart. "It was bad enough when my dad…" He glanced swiftly at his mother but she had turned on the car radio and was singing along with Frank Sinatra. Even with the cover of the music, Ken lowered his voice. "My father moved out to Oregon with his secretary. She was really nice when we used to visit his office, but now… she's going to have a baby."
"How does that work?" Davey hadn't ever known anyone who got a divorce, much less got married again afterward.
"How you have a baby?" Ken asked with a superior snort. "Don't you know?"
"I know," Davey said, adding as much sarcasm as he could muster. "I've kissed a girl -almost." Ken gave a mutual nod, obviously a boy of worldly knowledge when it came to girls. "But I mean, is the new baby…" He thought a moment. "Is it like your sister or brother, too?"
"Step," Ken said succinctly.
"Like Cinderella?" Davey asked with a snicker, just to get a rise out of him.
"Brat," Ken said, teasing evident in his pale blue eyes.
"Dumb-ass," Davey gave back.
Ken's eyes widened and he put a hand over Davey's mouth. "That one'll get you in big trouble." He checked to see if his mother had noticed before continuing. "I don't talk much about my dad anymore. Like you, huh?"
"Yeah." Davey grinned and this time, he did give Ken a soft slug in the arm. Ken smiled at him, no pretense at all, truly happy to be talking to him. Banishing the memories of his father's murder to the same mental closet they usually lurked in, Davey felt content for the first time in— he couldn't even remember when. He tucked his knees up, sitting Indian style against the car door. The smooth ride of the car was making him sleepy but the last thing he could allow himself to do was fall asleep in such a vulnerable position. "So, who do you think would win in a fight, Superman or Spiderman?"
"I'm not supposed to read comics. Mother says that they're a bad influence and promote violence."
Davey laughed abruptly. "You've been missing the best things in a kid's life, Ken Hutchinson."
"Says you. I read Red Badge of Courage and Robinson Crusoe last week, and I got guitar lessons for my birthday." Ken crossed his arms defiantly, raising his chin.
"Sound fun," Davey scoffed. "You play stickball?"
"Baseball, and I'm in the Sea Scouts."
"I skipped out on Mrs. M's geography class, but even I know there ain't no sea around here." Between the warmth of the car and the food, his stomach and head no longer hurt as much. He'd have given a lot to have this car ride last forever.
"Lake Superior." Ken raised a single finger to make the point. "You've probably never been on a boat."
That was true. Davey had never even ridden the Staten Island Ferry. "I been on the subway all the way to the Central Park Zoo."
"I love the zoo. What's your favorite animal?" Ken asked.
"Cheetah," Davey said immediately. "'Cause they're the fastest. You?"
"Gorilla. They're really smart."
"We're home!" Mrs. Hutchinson called out.
Davey looked out the window as the car pulled into the driveway of a large white house. It was beautiful, and if he hadn't already suspected it, the sheer size of the place proved that the Hutchinsons had money. "You live here?" he asked. "That's as big as…" He didn't want to admit that two of the four floors of his building could fit easily into the Hutchinson home.
"What?" Ken paused before jumping out of the car.
"Nothing." Davey hung back, the word hooligan resounding in his ears. He didn't belong here. Not someone who'd been touched by… He gulped and got ready to leave. They'd been nice, but he should go before Mrs. Hutchinson called the cops on him.
"Davey?" Ken held out the hand not burdened by the bag of leftovers from the reception. "You coming inside?"
Davey climbed slowly out of the car, trying like mad to look self-sufficient and tough, like the kids in the 14th Street gang back home. Tuff.
"Come on in, Davey, so I can look at you." Mrs. Hutchinson had a dozing Karen on one hip, although the girl looked like a heavy load for the slender woman. "You could be coming down with something."
"You can sleep in my room," Ken added. "I have twin beds."
In very short order, Davey was ushered into the warm house. Karen was tucked into her bed, and Ken had been sent off to find something he'd outgrown that would fit the smaller boy.
Left alone with Mrs. Hutchinson, Davey was wary because of the three Hutchinsons, she was the one he felt was closest to guessing what had happened to him.
"Did Kenny tell you I used to be a nurse?" she asked with her back to him while she rummaged around in the bathroom's medicine cabinet.
"No - uh, ma'am," he added belatedly, remembering how Ken and Karen spoke to their mother.
"I stopped working when I got married," she said, selecting a few things from the shelves. "I guess - maybe I should go back into that." She shook her head, biting her bottom lip and looking down at Davey. "Not something you're interested in talking about, is it?"
Her fingers were gentle when she felt the swollen side of his face. He'd almost forgotten the injury, but couldn't stifle a groan of pain when she pressed too hard on his jaw line. He pulled away, every nerve in his body on alert, poised to run.
"Davey, what happened?" Mrs. Hutchinson had kind blue eyes, exactly like Ken's. She didn't restrain him, just sat on the closed toilet lid with iodine and a bandage in her lap. "Did a man hit you?"
"I don't think I should…" Davey sucked in a too tight breath and coughed, which only aggravated his headache again. "I should call my Aunt. She'll be wondering where I am."
"I think you should call your mother," she said instead. "Do you really have an aunt in Duluth?"
Davey pushed back against the bathroom door and thought about escape. Thought about his mother's angry face when she hit him across the face. Remembered seeing the shock and horror that blossomed in her eyes right before he'd hurtled out the front door and ran as fast as he could up the street.
Remembered all the things that had happened in the last nine days, and then about bigos and pierogis warm from the oven in the cramped little kitchen of their house. Nicky would be kicking his hand-me-down shoes against the rungs of the chair and his mother would be lighting the candles on the Sabbath, her head covered by the same lace scarf that her mother had once worn.
"In California." He ducked his head so that he didn't have to see the betrayal in her eyes. "My ma's sister. Rose McNamara. My ma's name is Rachel Starsky."
"I'll bet she's missing you right now." She touched the bruise on his jaw with a careful thumb.
"Even if you argued with her, I think she still loves you and wants to know where you are." She placed the first aid supplies on the counter and pulled a towel off the rack. "Why don't you take a bath, and Kenny will find something for you to change into, then we can call your mother. It'll be late in New York, but I don't think she'll mind."
Privately, Davey swung between hoping that his mother would insist on sending the money to bring him home and the fear that she'd turn her back on him altogether.
"Yes, ma'am." He nodded, miserable.
"And if you feel like talking - to a neutral party." She laughed, a light, twinkly thing. "Like Switzerland, then I am here to listen. I think something happened, more than you want to admit."
Davey didn't say anything, just took the towels and waited until she left the room to shuck his torn shirt and jacket.
Chapter 3: three
A bath and Ken's hand-me-down flannel shirt and cords gave Davey the feeling that he'd stepped into someone else's life. Until Mrs. Hutchinson dialed the New York phone number he provided.
She was standing at the kitchen counter with a cup of coffee in one hand and the receiver in the other, waiting for the operator to put the call through. Ken and Davey sat at the table, both cradling hot cups of steaming cocoa with marshmallows on top. The only other time Davey had even had marshmallows on his cocoa was at that summer camp when he was ten. His father had pulled some strings or something to get Davey into the camp because he had been the only kid who was either Jewish or lived in a four story walk-up. It was the kind of place that Ken would go to, if he went to camp.
Davey thought of anything else - The Rifleman, a red bicycle, palm trees in California - anything to keep from thinking about his mother's reaction when Mrs. Hutchinson told here where he'd been for so long.
Mitch putting his finger up…
Davey raised the cup to his lips and realized he was trembling. He looked over at Ken and burned his tongue on the hot drink.
"Hello?" Mrs. Hutchinson said cheerily. "Are you Rachel Starsky?" She went on to explain who she was and where she'd found Davey. "Your son would like to talk to you."
Not really, Davey thought, but when he put the telephone to his ear and heard his ma's voice call his name, he almost burst into tears. That made him mad. "Hi, ma," he said belligerently.
"Where have you been?" she yelled. "I've been going through hell! I couldn't work the first week, and would have lost all my pay, but Joe has been so good to us. He stayed with me…"
Davey froze, letting the barrage of words wash over him. There was no way he could go back to that. Anger welled up in his belly, tightening his chest and gripping his throat. "Ma!"
"Who is that woman with you? Are you doing something nasty, dziecko?" she sneered.
Her use of his grandma's nickname was the last straw. "Ma! Shut up!" Davey turned away from the kind but shocked faces of Ken and his mother.
"Don't you use that tone with me, David Starsky. I've been looking everywhere for you - you've ruined the holiday, and the rabbi came over here to tell me we shoulda gone to temple. I was embarrassed in front of Joe."
For a moment, Davey thought he might have heard his mother sob, but things had gone too far. She obviously didn't want him around. "Ma! What's Aunt Rose's phone number?" he demanded.
"Rose? You want to go to Rose's? Ungrateful hooligan," Rachel said harshly. "All right, let her have to deal with you. It'll keep you out of the gangs, at least." She sighed, her exhalation like a bomb in Davey's ear. "Are you all right? Did you get enough to eat?"
"Yeah, I ate fine," Davey answered petulantly, glossing over all the cold nights when the growling from his stomach had kept him awake. "Mrs. Hutchinson picked me up and we're in Duluth. She's nice. What's Aunt Rose's phone number?"
Rachel rattled off her sister's address and phone number, leaving Davey scrambling for a pencil and paper from his leather satchel but it was too far from his chair. Ken silently slid a pad and ink pen across the table.
"Thanks, Ma." Davey scribbled down the Bay City address. "I…" He meant to tell her that he missed her, but the words wouldn't come out. He kept seeing Joe sitting at the table, eating her old country specialities. "What's Nicky doing?"
"He got in trouble with the cops. What am I going to do with the two of you?" Rachel said. "Shop-lifting! I tell you, that boy gets on my last nerve. He took some cigarettes and a box of Mallomars. Not even kosher! Up to no good. Luckily, Joe's taken him under his wing. I don't know what I'd do without—"
The last thing Davey wanted to hear about was Joe Durniak acting like a father to Nicky.
"G'bye, Ma," Davey interrupted. "I'll give Aunt Rose a call in the morning. I'll - tell you where I'm going next time." He dropped the phone into the cradle, his heart pounding.
I miss you.
He felt even more cut off from his family than that first night in the Philadelphia train station when he'd hidden in an equipment shack with nothing to eat but a couple of chunks of cheese from three mouse traps.
"Davey?" Mrs. Hutchinson spoke softly. "Should I call your mother back?"
"Uh - no." He looked down at his hastily written note. "I - I told her I'd stay with Aunt Rose for a while and she - thought that was a good idea."
"She did?" It was half-question, half-statement. "Well, I think we all need a night's sleep, it's after nine."
"Mother—" Ken began but was cut off by her stern expression. She pointed one finger at the stairwell, one eyebrow raised like an apostrophe above her blue eyes. "Yes, ma'am," he said. "Davey, come on, let's go to bed."
Seeing Ken and his mother's almost silent communication made Davey yearn for home - as noisy, chaotic and aggressive as it had sometimes been. He'd had a family, once upon a time. Once upon a time, he'd gone to bed with a blistered butt and no supper, secure in the knowledge that his parents were taking care of him. That they loved him. Now all that was gone. His father was dead, and apparently forgotten, and his mother was stepping out with her boss, replacing her own husband at the head of the table.
Davey hardened his heart against his mother, biting the inside of his cheek to keep from showing anything to the Hutchinsons.
"It'll be like a sleepover!" Hutch said earnestly. "Too bad we can't make any popcorn."
"Popcorn is good." Davey hadn't quite caught all that his new friend was saying as he followed him up the carpeted stairs to the second story.
Ken's room boasted two beds, covered with red and black checked spreads, and more toys than Davey and Nicky had, combined. The Erector set and Lincoln logs were shoved back on a shelf to make way for a squadron of toy soldiers who marched willy-nilly across a landscape scattered with school supplies, math texts and a large globe of the earth.
What drew Davey was a complete set of encyclopedias. He'd once invited the door-to-door encyclopedia salesman into the small Starsky apartment while his mother was at work, just to hear the guy's spiel. And to stroke the first faux leather bound volume - only twenty five cents, and then an additional twenty five cents each month for twelve months - plus postage and handling. Or, for a one-time fee of three dollars, he could have the entire set - the knowledge of the universe, by the following week. Three bucks that Davey had known his mother wouldn't part with. Not when she had "two mouths to feed. The two of you are like baby birds; your mouths are always open…"
"Can I look at that?" Davey asked while Ken changed into a pair of blue pajamas. There was a pair of red and white striped ones on Davey's bed.
"The encyclopedia?" Ken shrugged good-naturedly. "Go ahead. My dad…" He frowned slightly and fiddled with his top button. "Wants me to be a lawyer like him. Said I should try to learn all I could."
Pulling down a random volume, Davey let it fall open. Greece, the cradle of civilization. The first Olympics. Amazing gods, like Zeus, Apollo and Hermes. Heroic battles, amazing feats like Hercules and the golden fleece. He wanted to read the entire book from cover to cover.
"You sleepy?" Ken lay sideways, propping his chin on one hand, blond hair falling over his forehead.
"Not really." Davey shook his head. He wasn't going to admit that he couldn't go to sleep with someone watching, not ever again. Bad things happened when he was asleep. Bad men did.... The fact that there were no men in the Hutchinson house should have been a comfort, but somehow, it wasn't.
"We studied the Greek gods in school." Ken glanced at the page Davey still had open in his lap. "I did my report on Apollo. I wanted to do it on Dionysus, but my mother didn't approve of the god of wine."
Davey laughed, reluctantly setting the book aside. "I'd go for Dionysus, too. I read a book about Ares; he's the god of war. Blam. Blam!"
Ken frowned. "My father -- was in the last war. He said he never wanted to see bloodshed the like of that again."
"What'd he do?"
"Fighter pilot." Ken pointed to a small black and white picture of a young lieutenant standing next to a plane on an island with palm trees in the background. "Your father?"
"He was in the Army. He was stationed in France until he got shot in the shoulder and came home. Ma says I was born eight months later." Davey picked up the flannel pajamas.
"I'm getting a step-brother or sister. I know full well that it takes nine months to have a baby, silly."
"I came out early." Davey grinned. His ma used to curl her arms into an impossibly small circle to illustrate how tiny he'd been at birth. "She said I was a little bird, all scrawny."
"Change your clothes, Davey. I'm sleepy." Ken's eyelids fluttered and he yawned hugely.
"Hold your horses, I will." Davey flicked off the bedside lamp, leaving the room in semi-darkness except for the hall light spilling in around the half-closed door. Keeping his eyes on the other boy, Davey swiftly replaced the borrowed clothing with the candy-striped pajamas. "You get these for Christmas?"
"Last year, but I shot up during the summer," Ken said sleepily. "What grade are you in?"
"Yeah, Mrs. Lindquist. The witch." Ken chuckled. "You have a girlfriend yet?"
"Nah." His belly churned at the thought of touching someone down there, which until recently had been a pleasant anticipation. "There's a girl in my class, but she doesn't know I'm alive."
"I kissed Anna Schellenberg at cotillion."
"Man!" In spite of himself, Davey was impressed. Ken certainly did have experience with girls. He felt hopelessly backward. "How was it?"
"Wet," Ken said. "But I'd do it again. Not with her, probably, but there's this girl in math class, Vanessa. She's - Aphrodite. I bet she'd kiss swell."
"Sharman. That’s the girl in my class." Davey pictured her standing next to him in shop, their hands almost brushing when they reached for the same piece of wood for their birdhouses. "She's tall, and has long light brown hair."
"Yeah." Ken sighed, a long, breathy exhalation, and for some inexplicable reason, Davey felt himself harden.
His cheeks burning, he was more than glad of the covering darkness, and jumped under the covers. What had caused that? And why? Talking of girls? Except, when he slipped his hand into his drawstring bottoms to remind his wiener of its place, all he could think of was Mitch's hands there, stroking him roughly. That made the hardness deflate so fast, he felt light-headed and sick to his stomach.
"I wish you could stay for a long time, Davey. I always wanted a brother," Ken said.
Davey peered over the edge of the blankets. Ken's hair gleamed white in the light from the hall as if the Sabbath candles had kindled a flame on his head. Baruch Hashem came to Davey unexpectedly.
Blessed is God.
Despite all that had happened since he’d bolted from his home, he was alive and sleeping in a real bed, with a real friend.
"Me, too," he said softly into the night, feeling something strong and sure binding him to the other boy.
"Me n' thee. Rhymes, huh?" Ken laughed.
Ken must have fallen asleep right after that, because he didn't say anything else, even when Davey cautiously called out his name. Davey stayed awake for hours, tracking the path of the moon across the northern sky through the window of Ken's room. He didn't dream when he finally fell asleep, and that was a blessing all its own.
Rose McNamara called first thing in the morning when Davey was still eating scrambled eggs and buttered toast with Ken and Karen. She'd already spoken to her sister in New York and would wire money to Mrs. Hutchinson as soon as Western Union opened up in California. Greyhound bus had a terminal in Duluth, with a bus that left at 4:30 in the afternoon for parts west.
The morning was so busy with myriad preparations and some rough-housing fun with Ken in the Hutchinson's huge back yard that Davey didn't spare much thought for what lay ahead. He wanted to freeze this day, like Mr. Freeze in the Batman comic books did, to keep it forever in his memory, almost perfect in every way. He had a best friend, got to watch TV on their huge set and had Campbell's Tomato soup for lunch. His mother never bought canned soup, she always said it wasn't made right. He liked the milky, creamy tomato-y-ness just fine.
Mrs. Hutchinson packed Davey a small suitcase full of Ken's old clothes, made him two roast beef sandwiches and added the last slice of chocolate cake before driving him to the bus station.
"Write me!" Ken said, scribbled his address in Davey's old notebook, drawing a big circle around his name. "Let's stay friends. My father said that maybe we can go out to California after the baby is born, and he'd take us to that new place, Disneyland."
"Mickey Mouse?" Davey scoffed, as if he hadn't seen every single cartoon the mouse had ever appeared in. "You won't wanna see me if you're going there." His heart was breaking a second time, or maybe a third. He'd only met Aunt Rose once, when he was eight, but the Hutchinsons were like a family in a TV show - Father knows Best without Robert Young at the helm. Louise Hutchinson more than made up for the lack of a man around the house, in Davey's opinion. But it was leaving Ken that made him feel like crying. This was what having a true friend felt like.
Just like Spin and Marty, or Joe and Frank Hardy.
"I'd rather see you than any old mouse," Ken said affectionately and slugged him in the upper arm.
A slam of the front door saved Ken Hutchinson from getting beaned with a bottle still half full of Coke. He could hear the crash as it hit the door, and his wife's angry curse, but he fled before she could open the door and continue her tirade. Anger burned in his belly, incinerating all romantic feelings. Ignoring everything but the urge to run, he escaped instead of retaliating for her wounding words and fingernails.
This wasn't the first time one of them had stormed out of the house. Theirs was a volatile marriage, full of spirited arguments and equally passionate make-ups. In a way, he should have expected as much - his parents had had almost exactly the same sort of union, and even their divorce had been a paradox of acrimony and flirtation. He knew full well that this would not be the last time he and Vanessa fought, and the thought filled him with utter sadness.
All he wanted was a happy, strong relationship, certainly one with the usual ups and downs of everyday life, but without such bitterness. Vanessa could be a witch when she was angry, spewing vile words that hurt and scarred. Then, once she'd depleted her ire, she was a tigress in the bedroom, full of womanly wiles that always seduced Ken back into her lair.
He knew he was as much to blame for the animosity as she was. He could be severe, cold and cruel when incensed, just as his father had been. What was the old saying - opposites attract? Except he was now no longer sure that he and Vanessa were actually opposites. In many, ugly ways, they were exactly alike.
And in other ways, not at all. Undoubtedly, Vanessa would have stalked out of the house with car keys, money and a destination in mind, perhaps her sister’s, who lived down on the coast. That's what she had done a week ago.
Ken stopped, looking around. He'd been walking for blocks without paying the least attention to where he was going, and in the Bay City neighborhood where they lived, that wasn't a very good idea. In fact, it was a spectacularly bad one. They'd only moved to National Street two weeks before and he hadn't yet memorized all the adjacent avenues. He had no clue how to get back home. The street signs above his head proclaimed this to be the corner of Windsor and Stockton, and there was a small mom and pop grocery just yards away. Maybe he could go in, call for a cab to drive him home?
That was not going to happen. Not - he consulted his watch with distain - not when he'd only been out of the apartment for forty-five minutes. He spotted a bar up ahead and searched his pockets for the price of a beer, maybe even a shot of whiskey, if he was lucky.
He found a pair of crumpled ones and four dimes, two nickels and a single penny. Quite enough for a couple of beers and enough whiskey to drown out the sound of Vanessa screeching at him like some harpy in a Greek tragedy.
Nightbird's turned out to be just the ticket - the perfect bar; dark and impersonal with a vague stink of old sweat and beer. A man's bar, where he could drink away the misfortunes of life, and commiserate with other poor slobs who were drowning their own sorrows.
There was a frosty mug of beer in front of him moments after he bellied up to the bar. It was a Sunday night, and there were few men in the place besides the bartender and a handful of patrons dotting the tables near an empty pool table.
"Care if I sit down?" A redhead, her eyes elongated with black eyeliner like Barbra Streisand wore, draped herself on the bar next to him.
"Not when I can have a beauty beside me," Ken said graciously, flirting just a little because he knew she expected it. Her thickly coated eyelids and ponderous breasts didn't interest him in the slightest, but if he'd learned anything suffering through three years of high school cotillion, it was how to put on the charm. He certainly hadn't ever learned to dance. "I'm Ken."
"Raquel." She offered a limp hand as if the golden bangles on her wrists weighed down her arm. "What's a rich guy like you doing in a dump like this?"
A dump? And here he'd been thinking it was the exact place he wanted to be. "I'm hardly rich." Not even well off, anymore. Which was a big part of why Vanessa was in such a mood. All the money his parents had sent, as well as the nice apartment in Westwood, had immediately dried up when he announced that he was dropping out of UCLA and wouldn't go into private practice as a lawyer when he finished. His father had refused to pay another cent unless Ken got what he called a 'proper education', one that apparently didn't include the specific place Ken had selected.
"Nicer jacket than any man in the place." Raquel fingered the sleeve of his jacket, which he'd only been wearing because he'd come from a required function right before Van lit into him. "Cashmere, unless I miss my guess. I used to work the men's department at Bullock's department store. And those shoes are Italian."
"You have a good eye." He signaled the bartender over. "Something for the lady?" He hoped it didn't cost more than a buck-fifty, since he was already down two quarters for his first beer. He'd originally hoped to get another, but that was out of the question now.
"Slow gin fizz." Raquel smiled with her lips over her teeth as if she was afraid of showing a chipped front tooth. Ken had gone to school with a girl who used to do that - what was her name?
Sarah Mae Gunderson. He'd been partnered with her at cotillion a couple of times. What had happened to her?
"Ken?" Raquel sipped from her shockingly pink drink, which cost a dollar seventy-five.
"I'm sorry." He gulped down the rest of his beer. Way to go, Hutchinson, space out on a lady as if she wasn't even there. "I had an… argument…" That was a good enough word for it, even if the scratches on his forearm stung like the dickens. "With my wife."
"Ain't that why all the guys are here?" Raquel nodded philosophically. "Most men I meet are escaping something."
Somehow, she'd hit the nail dead-on.
Ken felt like he'd been trying to escape from one thing or another his entire life. He really looked at her this time, to see past the heavy make-up designed to create a more youthful appearance. The skimpy dress, barely long enough to cover her derriere, as his mother used to say, was almost the same color as the slow gin fizz and exactly the wrong color for a redhead. So she was probably past thirty, at least, and sidling up to men in bars. Wouldn't be much of a guess to assume that Raquel was a prostitute.
"What about you? What are you escaping from?"
She looked startled, going just a little pale under all that powder and blusher. "Nothing anyone else wouldn't run from. Loneliness, sadness…"
"This is just a friendly chat between two strangers?"
"I've always relied on the kindness of strangers," she said with a fluttery southern drawl.
"Stella." He raised his glass and clinked with her. Somehow, she'd lightened his mood. "Nice to meet you. I really should get back to my wife before she calls the police."
"She'd be crazy not to, a gorgeous man like you dressed in the finest threads." Raquel looked down, her kohled eyes lingering on his groin until Ken could feel himself growing hot. "You have another argument with Mrs. Ken, you come on back to Nightbird's and we can talk some more."
"I just might do that." He gave her a courtly little bow, the way he'd been taught in cotillion. That brought a pink glow to her cheeks, that was just the right color for a redhead. "Even if Van doesn't throw me out of the house." Dropping nearly every cent he had onto the bar, Hutch sauntered out. He was going for suave, and maybe sophisticated, but naturally there was a small lip in the entry way and he tripped, nearly sprawling onto the sidewalk.
"Need a hand?" a voice asked just as he was jerked upright and slammed against the rough stucco of the bar. Sheer agony blossomed in his skull, thousand-watt light bulbs detonating in his brain.
It all happened so suddenly that Ken had no time to react before another man hauled him into an alley and slugged him in the kidneys while the first one went through his pockets.
"Hey!" Ken yelled, pain ripping his head apart. It hurt just to speak and breathing was hellish after he was punched in the kidneys a second time. "I don't…" He flopped uselessly, trying to make sense of what was going on.
"Nothing!" the first man growled. "He don't have a cent!"
"Take his wallet and that suit coat. Least we'll look good," the other one said.
Hutch fought back when they jerked his sleeves up, kicking out at them. He got a confused look at blue jeaned legs and army fatigue jackets but couldn't make out their faces. He was on the ground, how had that happened? The night created shadows on shadows, murky beings flickering in the dim glow of a broken street light.
In seconds, his jacket and the two men were gone. Hutch huddled, utterly spent, unable to pull himself out of the sticky puddle he was sitting in.
Fuck - what would Van say about this?
If this wasn't some kind of sign, he didn't know what was. Mugged the night before he was to start the police academy.
Groaning, Ken braced his arms against the wall that had aided in his assault, staring down at the puddle below him. Just his luck it was probably where some drunk had urinated recently.
Didn't smell like pee, though. Smelled more like beer, mixed with some other unidentified substance that Ken categorically did not want to investigate any further. He stood on shaky legs and closed his eyes, fighting the urge to throw up.
"Are you okay? Could you use a hand?" a voice asked and Ken recoiled, almost going ass over teakettle into the trash cans behind him.
"Hey, careful there!" The man gripped Ken's arm to steady him, which hurt because he'd grabbed the spot where Vanessa had scratched him. "Were you mugged? Want me to call the cops?"
Ken squinted, but the headlights from a car parked at the curb were too bright, haloing the man like an unlikely angel. "I just… t-two men took my wallet and jacket, but they didn't get anything. No money."
"Come over here, sit down in my cab before you fall down."
Ken was led to a squat yellow taxi - the car with the headlights. "I'll take you to the ER. There's one over on Lexington…." The driver kept chattering on and Ken had the oddest sense of déjà vu, that he knew this man.
Other matters intruded and Ken froze, feeling nausea crowd out the rest of his symptoms. "I'm going to…"
"Not on my upholstery!" the driver warned just as Hutch vomited into the gutter. "That oughta make you feel better. You're a mess. C'mon, I got nuthin' but time. It's been a slow night. Sit down, and I'll drive you over to the hospital. Or the cops - take your pick, I'm easy."
For some reason, Ken almost laughed at that. He eased his aching body into the front seat of the car, sighing with relief. His head was still pounding, but sitting down helped a lot.
"I'm Dave," his rescuer said, sliding into the driver's seat. "Dave Starsky."
He'd only ever known one Starsky, one Dave Starsky. What were the odds?
"Davey?" he asked hesitantly, reluctant to hold out his filthy hand. Although, Dave had already held his arm and hadn't complained. "Ken Hutchinson."
"Fuckin' A," Dave blurted out, slack-jawed for a moment. He reached out and brushed a hand over Ken's police cadet short, regulation blond buzz cut. "It is you. Man, Ken, it's been years."
"Ten years." Ken smiled, something warm and happy uncurling inside him, something he thought he'd lost. "Or nine years, uh…"
"It's August 31, so I'd say ten years, minus a month and ten days." Dave grinned and winked. "I guess I didn't keep up my end with the writing. Never was much with letters."
"A lot under the bridge since then," Ken said quietly. They both had written that first few years, exchanging confidences about teenage problems; growing up, school and girls, but as they became young men, the letters had slowed and then stopped altogether. Ken couldn't remember the last time he'd sent a missive west, but it had been long before he moved to Bay City. He'd barely connected his new address with that of his long lost friend. "You still live around here?"
"Yeah, actually, about one mile over, on National. Not that far from Aunt Rose's neighborhood, but cheaper."
"On National?" Ken laughed, a real belly laugh that made his sore kidneys ache. "So do I, with my wife Vanessa. We just moved there about two weeks ago."
"Some kind of coincidence, huh? Weird." Davey pulled up a red and black plaid lunchbox and took out a battered thermos. It was exactly like the one Ken's mother used to bring on long car rides. "Coffee's not too hot anymore, but it'll wash that bad taste out of your mouth."
Little things can mean so much. Hutch was more grateful than he would ever admit when he took that first swallow of lukewarm coffee.
"Well, then, what's your pleasure, Ken? Want to report the mugging?"
Ken shook his head, wanting something else entirely. "No point. They didn't get any money and I couldn't ID them if I tried." He didn't mention that Davey was dressed almost identically to his muggers; fatigue jacket and ratty blue jeans.
"The offer's still out there for the ER, though you don't seem like you got knocked around too bad. Or just back to the wife?" Dave turned the key, starting the engine.
"When does your shift end?" Ken asked abruptly.
"Not until eleven," Dave said with a shrug. "It's nine thirty now. You don't want to go home? No skin off my teeth."
Was it that obvious? Ken rubbed his forehead but that didn't reduce the headache one iota. He was due at the academy early the next morning; he really needed to get some sleep. What the hell was he going to tell Vanessa? "I just need… a couple more hours before I go home. Van will have calmed down by then."
Dave seemed to be concentrating on his driving, but he glanced over at Ken with a smile, his face half-shadowed by the night, reflections from the neon signs above local businesses creating rainbows in his dark blue eyes. When Dave went back to looking at the road, Ken took the opportunity to study the changes in his friend. Davey had been small-boned and slight at thirteen. At twenty-three, he was slender but well-muscled with a dusting of scrubby beard on his chin which contrasted strangely with his ultra-short hair cut. Not a curl left in sight.
"How's your mom?" Davey asked, steering with his right hand casually hooked over the wheel. "Hey, I remember now, Aunt Rose had an invitation to your wedding. She showed it to me after I got back from 'Nam."
Something tight caught in Ken's throat. "I wish you could have come." Having at least one friend in attendance would have been great. The whole affair had been orchestrated by Van's mother like some royal production fit for the Queen of England. As the groom, Ken had felt like just one more adornment in the bride's ensemble.
"Got a fare!" Davey announced and slid the cab over to the curb. An old man got in, recited his address, which wasn't very far away, and lapsed into silence in the back seat.
He was dropped at his destination in under five minutes. Davey had earned a dollar fifty for the drive.
"Won't be getting rich this way," he said ruefully, tucking the money into the pocket of his fatigue jacket. "Good thing I got other options or I think I'd go back to hitching cross country."
"Which didn't get you all that far when you were thirteen."
Something indefinable crossed Dave’s face for a split second, but it was gone before Ken could ask. Dave laughed. "Hey! I'm older now, and the chicks can't get enough of ol' Starsky."
"It fits you."
"Huh?" He parked the cab in a quiet corner of a deserted park and bent down to get the red and black lunch box again.
"Starsky. It's a good name for you. Strong." Ken looked him up and down again, seeing the tension hidden under his old friend's cheerful exterior. "One of the last letters I got, you were set to be deployed in country. Viet Nam must have been rough."
"Yeah." Starsky shrugged and waved a hand as if erasing a chalkboard. "That's all behind me now. I got new horizons. Starting tomorrow, I'm a future police officer of Bay City, California."
"You're going into the police academy?" Ken asked in astonishment.
"Yeah," Starsky said with a belligerent jerk of his chin. "You make it sound like you can't believe I'd get in. I got smarts."
"Dav… Starsky, I'm just amazed at the coincidence." Ken laughed, tapping his own chest. "I'm starting classes there in the morning, too!"
"Hey!" Starsky grinned, joy erasing the street punk demeanor. He flipped open the locks on the lunchbox, taking out a sandwich wrapped in wax paper. "We'll be classmates? That's terrific, Kenny!" He ripped open a sack of potato chips, shaking his head. "You need a better name."
"Kenny was never my first choice." Hutch snitched a couple of chips, wincing when the salt stung the cuts on his bottom lip. "And then Ken ended up being a doll's name."
"Hutchinson is too damned long to say fast," Starsky said, musing. He handed over half of the sandwich and then held up his portion in a salute. "Hutch. Fits you. Starsky and Hutch. We'll be invincible."
"To me and thee," Hutch said, assailed by memories of that single night when Davey had slept in the bed across from his. His bond to Dave Starsky had remained strong despite their lapses in letter writing, and he'd cherished that one time together. He'd had friends come and go in his life, but never someone who so instantly fit him. "You ever get a set of encyclopedias? Those might be a help if we have to write papers for some of the theory classes."
"Man, I hope we don't have to." Starsky bit savagely into his sandwich as if he hadn't eaten in days. "I got a sharpshooter's medal in the army, and I've done hours of obstacle courses, but writing reports…"
"Is not that difficult." Ken tasted his sandwich with a nostalgic grin. Roast beef. Would the coincidences ever end? Roast beef had been the first - and last - sandwich he'd ever shared with Starsky. He ate nearly all of it before he realized how hungry he was. The fight with Vanessa had taken all his energy, and with savings tight right now, he'd been trying to extend the food bill with bulk items like canned soup and rice. "I'm pretty good with a rifle. I've done some hunting, but never used a revolver. And while I run ten miles a day, I'll need to work on my biceps and triceps with pull-ups and weight lifting."
"Ten miles a day?" Starsky asked, his voice rising into a squeaky register. "You do that just because?" He chewed a few more potato chips with a rueful expression. "I had enough of running in the army, and I never want to do that again."
"Increases the lung capacity and keeps me toned," Hutch said, not mentioning that it also kept him out of Vanessa's way. They skirted each other when they were in the apartment at the same time - it was either outright war or a wary truce halted occasionally for very satisfying sex that cleared the air for a few blessed days.
"You might have to slow down on the running after the beating those whippos gave you." Starsky reached out to brush a smudge from Hutch's cheek.
"Ow." Hutch grimaced. "That hurts more than I expected." He probed his jaw line, feeling where the stucco had scraped off a layer of skin. His back was aching, too, a dull throb that made sitting back against the seat of the cab uncomfortable. At least his belly was full.
"C'mon." Starsky brushed bread and chip crumbs off his hands. "I'm gonna drive you to my place, get you cleaned up. If we really live that close together, it won't be anything to take you home again later, and maybe your wife'll take pity on your bruises."
Not likely, Hutch thought. "I'll bet you don't have any clothes that will fit me."
"I've grown some, Blondie," Starsky boasted, although the fatigue jacket he wore overwhelmed his slender frame. "We're probably not that different in height." He drove down to a stop sign, took a right and then two lefts, and Hutch recognized the five and dime where Vanessa had shopped the day before. They were only one street over from his apartment building.
"You know, I wore those clothes you gave me for a long time after," Starsky continued. "My aunt didn't have any clothes that fit a thirteen year old kid, and not that much money herself, but I liked living with her."
"And her husband ran a body shop?" Hutch remembered.
"Yeah, that part was great. Spent all my weekend bent over a car engine, learning to change oil and retune a carburetor." Starsky turned left again and parked the cab at the curb about two blocks from where Hutch lived. "There's my mansion." He waved a hand at a dingy looking building with vaguely Spanish style architecture and a red tiled roof. "Where's yours?"
"9795, down a couple blocks." Hutch pointed. Getting out of the car was more difficult that he expected. His back had stiffened up to the point that straightening hurt like fury. "Damn," he whispered. The scratches Vanessa had left on his arm paled in comparison to the pain in his lower spine.
"Where's it hurt?" Starsky asked worriedly.
"Think I took a hit to the kidneys." Hutch braced his lower back with one hand and stood cautiously. Two slow, deep breaths helped considerably, and he was ready to tackle the short flight of steps to Starsky's front door.
"Take the stairs slow, and then I live down the hall on the first floor there. One A," Starsky directed. He slid a solicitous arm around Hutch's waist, guiding him up the steps.
Hutch gasped, feeling something that Vanessa's touch had not elicited in weeks - the beginnings of an erection. That was totally unexpected. He inhaled shakily and took the handrail. "T-thanks, I can do it myself."
"Knock yourself out," Starsky said affably, stepping back with a fond pat on Hutch's shoulder.
Desire shot through Hutch like a comet, and he stumbled on the top step.
"You really are like a graceful swan, you know that?" Starsky teased, catching the back of Hutch’s shirt in a hard fist.
Embarrassment doused the erection. Hutch prayed fervently that Starsky had not noticed, and concentrated on walking into the building without falling over his big feet. Starsky lived in a pint-sized studio just big enough for a Murphy bed, a miniature kitchen, a portable TV set with rabbit ears sitting precariously on the top and a card table.
"Ain't much more than a hovel, but it's home, for now," Starsky said. "Gonna get a nicer place once I start making some money, after the academy."
"That's exactly what I keep telling Vanessa." Hutch eased himself down into a battered ladder back chair that looked like Starsky had rescued it from a trash heap. "She's not too happy right now. Money's tight."
"I hear you." Starsky tugged at Hutch's shirt where it was tucked into his slacks. "Let's take a look at your back."
"Wait!" Hutch tried to twist away quickly, but the desire was faster. It whooshed through him, leaving a tingling path of want throughout his body.
What the hell was wrong with him? He'd rarely had what he secretly called "those urges" for a man come on so hard and so strong. And for Starsky, whom he had known for years.
Except he'd always pictured a barely adolescent boy when he thought about Starsky - and that hadn't been for ages. This Davey Starsky was someone familiar, and yet not - all lean masculine lines, with a strong jaw, a shadowing of scruff on his cheeks and the regulation short haircut that revealed the curve of his head and the vulnerable dip at the base of his skull.
Whoa! This had to stop, now.
"Hutch, you okay?" Starsky sounded anxious and scared. He'd also stopped pulling on Hutch's shirt.
"A little light-headed." Hutch pressed against his temple. He had a headache that promised to stick around for a day or two, unless he was really lucky. Hell of a way to start the police academy. "If you've got a shirt I can borrow…" He trailed off, and began to unbutton the front placket.
"Damn." Starsky whistled through his teeth when Hutch shucked off his shirt. The formal white button-down that he'd worn to the afternoon academy meet and greet was ripped and stained with blood. "One hell of a bruise in the back there."
"Yeah, hurts like hell, too." Hutch stretched carefully, feeling the strain on his back muscles.
Starsky ducked into the bathroom and came out with a wet washcloth and a box of Band-Aids. "You think we're stuck in some kinda cosmic hiccup?" He gently wiped the washrag over Hutch's scraped cheekbone.
Tilting his face to let Starsky wash off the blood, Hutch was thankful for the cleansing warmth and the fact that his cock didn't rise hopefully. Maybe the sudden rush of need was just some aberrant aftereffect of the mugging. Starsky's kind touch had overwhelmed his system after the cruel treatment of those criminals.
"What are you talking about?" Hutch took the rag to wash off his chest and hands. His knuckles were skinned raw where he'd scrabbled against the wall.
Starsky tugged open a drawer in his bureau and pulled out a white t-shirt with narrow blue stripes. "You and me. Every time we meet, one of us is black and blue. 'Cept, last time, your mom helped me clean up." He waited until Hutch had taped a Band-Aid over the worst of his scrapes. Holding out the shirt, Starsky asked, "How is your mom? I used to think she was some kind of angel."
"She's charge nurse in the ER at Duluth General Hospital." Hutch grit his teeth as he got dressed again, his back and shoulders protesting every single movement. Good thing his mother wasn't there to see the bruises, she'd have had him in an examination room in under ten minutes.
"And there's nothing cosmic about it, Starsk. I moved to Los Angeles a year and a half ago." He leaned back in the ladder back chair, winded by something as simple as pulling on a shirt. "When I dropped out of UCLA, Vanessa and I had to move out of Westwood. Something in the back of my mind must have directed us to Bay City. You and I were bound to run into each other."
"Right after you got beat up, when we woulda seen each other the next morning at the academy?" Starsky gave a short laugh and sat down on the table. "You think whatever you want, it's still weird."
"My mother will be thrilled that I found you again," Hutch said mildly.
"Send her my love." Starsky winked. The refrigerator was only a few feet away. By stretching his foot to hook the door handle, Starsky opened the fridge and leaned in to snag a couple of beers. He popped off the caps on the edge of the table and took a long drink, looking over the bottle until Hutch did the same.
Watching Starsky swallow, the long line of his neck, and the way his muscles moved in his throat did something incredible to Hutch's libido. He took a quick drink of Coors in the hope that it would drown the arousal.
"You didn't go to the shindig at the academy this afternoon, to meet all the instructors and other cadets," Hutch said to change the subject. Although his mother hadn't been happy about his change in careers, at least she hadn't cut off the monthly spending allowance the way his father had. "There was free food and designed-to-encourage speeches."
"Had to make a living, jack," Starsky shrugged. "Didn't have a nice jacket, anyway."
"And now I don't, either." But, he didn't care. The mugging had reconnected him to the one person he'd been missing most without even knowing.
"How you doing? I got more beer, if you want to stick around. There's only the one bed, but believe it or not, I do have a pair of red and white striped pajamas." Starsky frowned as if trying to remember where they were. "Well, at least, I got the bottoms."
Hutch wanted to ask him if he'd felt that thrilling blast of need, but knew that he never would. He'd never admitted his occasional interest in men, and wasn't about to now. Rediscovering an old friend was the best thing to happen in a long time, and he looked forward to getting to know Starsky better at the academy. "I'd better go home. Van will be worried…" Probably not, but the state of his marriage was just one more thing he wasn't going to admit to Starsky. Not yet anyway.
For a moment, he yearned for that sweet innocence of childhood, when he'd felt like he could tell Starsky anything.
"Hey." Starsky got up to open the door for him. "How about I pick you up in the morning? We can drive in to the academy together. You and me."
"Sounds like a plan," Hutch said, holding out his hand to shake Starsky's.
Starsky batted it aside, pulling Hutch into a quick, rough hug. It wasn't sexual in any way, but the friendship warmed something deep inside Hutch's belly.
"Me and thee, Hutch. We'll be the best cops Bay City has ever seen."
Chapter 4: four
"Hey, you okay?" Hutch tucked Starsky into the shelter of his arms, gently extricating him from Gail just as one of Bay City's finest came over to handcuff the girl.
"Be careful with her!" Starsky cautioned, even though he could barely stand on his own. He swayed, hanging onto Hutch's arm, conflicting emotions swamping him. He wanted to help Gail, and wanted to get as far away as he could from her and the whacko bunch of sadists she lived with. "She saved… my life."
Gail looked over at Starsky, her eyes registering sad resignation. Then her slight figure was lost in a cluster of blue uniforms.
"S-starsk? D'you… need a hand?" Hutch stammered, turning him away from the scene of his own near assassination.
Hutch's obvious concern, and his uncertainty, shored up something inside Starsky and he drew strength from his partner. Nothing was going to be all right for a long, long time, but maybe he could still get through it with Hutch beside him.
"I - uh." Starsky suppressed the trembling that threatened to shake his bones loose from his joints. His shoulders ached like fury, and his belly hadn't been right since the nasty cocktail Gail had given him hours ago. He felt like he needed to puke, but nothing was coming up. "I want to…"
He literally didn't know what he wanted. He couldn't think, could barely walk, could barely process what had happened. He'd basically shut down just before the orange glow of the dawning sun lit the horizon. Starsky's self-preservation had taken hold, stifling all other physical sensations, leaving him weirdly weightless and shocky. He'd survived, but at what cost?
It had happened. Again.
The one thing he had never told anyone, not even Hutch.
The first time, that long ago night when he'd hitched a ride with Mitch in the green and white big rig, had been brief. Not much more than a grope. Certainly not…
He'd never put a name to what Mitch did, but it was nothing next to what Marcos' men had done to him in the name of retribution and redemption.
There was no other word for it. He'd been taunted, drugged and then beaten, held down by many hands while someone he never saw blistered his butt and thighs with a leather strap. If that had been all, he could have handled it.
When he was tied across a beam, ass up, hands and feet secured to the supports below, he'd vomited. Those rough hands had pulled his butt cheeks apart, repeatedly impaling him while an eerie chorus chanted "Si-mone".
Starsky shook his head to dispel the memories. He kept mixing them up, seeing Mitch holding down a small, ragged child and the black robed believers restraining a naked man superimposed over each other; a macabre collage that threatened to undo him from the inside out.
The need to get away felt like skittery ants crawling over his skin; he couldn't keep still. Starsky looked up, past the groups of cops and handcuffed Marcus followers, to the jumble of cars parked on the road below. Surrounded by a phalanx of black and whites, the bright red Torino was a sanctuary. He just had to get there. He started to run, stumbling over the uneven ground, and would have fallen if Hutch hadn't hauled him up by the loose fabric of the black robe.
"Get off… I…" Starsky lashed out, terrified. Hutch enveloped him in a bear hug, and for a moment, Starsky still struggled, even though rationally, he knew it was Hutch. None of Marcos's people had held him like this, protected him. He inhaled forcefully, the quick movement hurting bruised ribs. He didn't let himself feel the other pains, the ones they'd inflicted lower down.
"Starsk!" Hutch said sharply, his voice pitched low to keep things private. The babble of noise from police escorting arrested suspects to the paddy wagon surged around them, grating on Starsky's frayed nerves.
"You need help, Detective?" a voice asked from behind him.
Starsky forced himself to still, to act normal. He could do this. He'd pretended nothing had happened since he was thirteen years old. Piece of cake.
"Don't worry about me." He even managed a smile for the young cop. "Just bruised my… foot. Hard to walk."
Starsky saw the brief struggle on Hutch's face before his police mask took over. "Officer Malloy? I need to get Detective Starsky to the hospital as soon as possible. Can you get some of those cruisers moved?"
"Sure thing!" Malloy actually saluted before scurrying away to talk to another impossibly young rookie standing guard next to a long swag of yellow crime scene tape. Just beyond the barrier were two mobile TV vans, with reporters setting up their equipment to record the drama.
"Not the hospital," Starsky muttered, picking his way carefully down the hill. The last thing he wanted was to see himself on the six o'clock news wearing a damned black nightgown.
"Hey." Hutch caught him by the arm again and Starsky had the overwhelming urge to shake him off. Every touch, even Hutch's, was too much. But he bore it because this was Hutch. "You're hurt, you need to—"
"Just get us out of here," Starsky said through clenched teeth. "Anywhere but here. I can't wear this…" He plucked at the coarse black material. He'd have thrown it off right then and there except for the dozens of witnesses. As it was, the whole of the Bay City police force knew he'd been taken captive. It would take a long time to live that down. He was not about to reveal that he'd been raped.
Starsky reached the Torino and jerked the passenger door open. The weight of the heavy door torqued his wrenched shoulder and he bit back a moan of pain. Climbing awkwardly into the seat of the car, he was surprised how much sitting hurt. How was he going to hide this from Hutch? Starsky shifted until he was perched on his right hip, leaning away from the driver's seat, and Hutch's concern.
"Starsk?" Hutch said softly, worry naked in his eyes.
He knew Hutch wanted to know what happened. He deserved to know. Starsky just wasn't ready yet.
"Please, Hutch." Adrenaline flooded his veins, as if it had been dammed up when he was hanging from the skeleton of a cage, and only now washed over the blockade. It made him jumpy and hyper-alert. He ducked his head, very aware of the intrusive lenses of the TV cameras recording every second of their escape. "Just drive."
The Torino leapt to life, the engine's roar oddly reassuring. When the big car pulled past the gates of the old zoo, Starsky exhaled, some of the nauseating adrenaline draining away. He was exhausted; his wits stomped into the ground. He had to take charge of the situation, or Hutch would, and he couldn't allow that to happen.
"Call Dobey. Tell him you're taking me home." Starsky raised his chin, staring at Hutch, challenging him to defy such a direct order.
"Starsky, there's no way." Hutch glanced both ways, and then pulled the Torino into a secluded spot. The long fence of the abandoned zoo stretched out on the right. They were near what must have been the service entrance. A rusted sign hung crookedly, directing all deliveries to the Pasada Street gate. Old growth eucalyptus trees shaded the area and the roadway was covered with dropped leaves. A sharp smell of menthol was heavy in the air.
"You know regulations. You have to get examined by a doctor for the official report." He reached out a hand, touching Starsky's cheek. "Doesn't take a medical degree to see how badly you're hurt."
"Please?" Pleading was cruel. He knew Hutch would have given him the sun and the moon just then if it took away the pain. "I'll go later. Just give me some… dignity. M-my own clothes, a little time."
"Starsky…" Hutch made one token protest and nodded slowly, his expression bleak. He twisted the key in the ignition again, guiding the car through the labyrinth of back roads.
Holding himself rigidly on his right hip, Starsky only barely tolerated the car ride. Blessedly, Venice Place was the closest, less than ten miles from the zoo. Early morning traffic snarled the freeway in the other direction, but it was smooth sailing to Hutch's building.
Starsky had planned on jumping out of the car the moment Hutch stopped the car, but his body betrayed him. He'd stiffened up. Any attempt to straighten sent horrible pains down his spine, cramping his already damaged insides. He heard himself moan.
Hutch didn't say a word, just gently eased him out of the car and up to the building. Climbing the stairs was nightmarish.
Starsky had never been so glad to get inside his partner's living room. Except, once there, he was too weary to think of what to do next. He'd gotten this far. How did he hide what was undoubtedly visible proof of abuse on his own body? Hutch was no fool. He would guess the reason why if Starsky insisted on an immediate shower.
His own cop instincts balked at washing away the evidence even as his shame told him to hide in the shower with the water running full blast. The longer he hesitated before making a decision, the harder it would be to think. Maybe he could just check out completely; take a vacation from his own life.
Hutch was already on the phone, talking to Dobey. Starsky stayed out of it, not even listening to the one-sided conversation. He looked down at himself, and the filthy black robe filled him with revulsion. With a savage jerk, he ripped open the fastenings on the front, heading for Hutch's bureau. Any damn shirt would do; he and Hutch wore each other's clothes all the time.
Dropping the black robe on the floor, Starsky grabbed the first shirt he found in Hutch's drawer and started to pull it over his head.
"Oh, my God," Hutch said.
He'd seen the bruises. Starsky should have thought things through. Should have waited to strip in the bathroom, away from Hutch's view. It was just too difficult to think rationally when very little made any sense.
"Starsk," Hutch said, his voice wavering with shock. "Dobey said…" He cleared his throat, and Starsky took the time to pull the shirt all the way over head, to hide at least some of the black and blue contusions marking his torso. Every movement - putting his hands over his head, twisting to pull the shirt down - hurt like hell.
"Dobey said that I can… That I should take the pictures here, of your injuries," Hutch said all in a rush. "And take the film straight over to Parker Center, to maintain chain of evidence. As long as you were examined by a physician in the next twelve hours."
Starsky risked looking over at Hutch, seeing his own injuries reflected in Hutch's pale face. The idea of being photographed, of cataloguing his various bruises and abrasions, was truly nauseating. He'd helped perform the horrific task on many occasions, quite aware of how humiliating it was for the victim. But being the victim? He'd never considered that angle at all.
He knew the pictures had to be taken. In order to collect evidence, he had to be brutalized all over again. Screaming inside his head, Starsky nodded, his neck aching and his head as heavy as lead. He wrapped his arms around himself, feeling like he would break apart if he didn't.
Hutch got his camera from his desk. It wasn't anything like the one Starsky had at home, with all the F-stops, wide-angle lenses and variable shutter speed. It was an old Kodak with a flashcube on top. Starsky waited for Hutch to ask the inevitable question.
And knew he had to tell the truth.
He felt suspended in time, just as he had been that morning, waiting for the knife to fall. All the other cops at Metro would find out exactly what kind of a man he was now. Being tarred and feathered would be less painful than this.
"Starsk, I'm sor—"
"Just get it over with," Starsky said harshly, held together with nothing but his own tired will. One more thing and he'd shatter. He stripped off the shirt again, standing naked in front of Hutch. The abrasions across his buttocks burned but he was glad for the physical pain, because it extinguished all thought.
The blinding flash made it easier, too. He didn't have to see the revulsion in Hutch's eyes, and the pity.
"That's done," Hutch said, and he yanked the bedspread off the bed, swathing Starsky in its folds. Starsky was taken completely off guard when Hutch pulled him into his arms, cradling him like a small child. "I'm sorry," Hutch murmured, rocking him gently as if they were slow dancing.
Hutch's embrace was so right and all wrong right then. What was meant as solace felt like confinement and Starsky tried to jerk free. Every instinct yelled flee, get away, fight, and while he knew that was utter crap, he couldn't stop himself from pushing Hutch away.
"Hey." Hutch held out both hands, the classic "no weapons" pose. "Talk to me, Starsk. Tell me what happened."
"Isn't it obvious?" Starsky shouted. The sane part of his brain told him to stop yelling at the one person on earth who would support him, no matter what, but sanity was vastly overrated. He couldn't rein himself in. "Take a good look, Hutch! You like what you see? You want a piece of this?"
Slugging Hutch would have been kinder. Starsky snatched up the t-shirt, heading for the bathroom. Evidence be damned, he was taking that shower. No fucking intern at the county hospital was going to do a rape kit on him. His dignity was already in tatters; he intended to hold onto every shred of self-respect he had left.
"I see someone who was beaten and still fought back," Hutch said quietly.
Starsky caught the doorframe, his fingers digging into the wood until he could feel splinters under his nails. He didn't look at Hutch. Couldn't.
"I see someone who hurts, but buries it because he thinks that what happened would make him less of a man."
Pain sharp as a scalpel sliced through Starsky's belly. He needed his defenses on full alert. Hutch being nice knocked chinks in the armor.
"And at the risk of sounding cruel - Starsky, you're wrong."
Starsky could hear Hutch's footsteps coming closer. He flinched when the bedspread was draped over his shoulders, still unable to look at his friend. Hutch gently touched the side of his face where Luke had burned him. "I wanted you a long time ago. I still want you."
Starsky gulped compulsively, centering on the warmth of Hutch's hand resting on his shoulder.
"I always thought I'd know if you were hurt even if I wasn't there. That I'd feel something." Hutch paused. Starsky listened when both of them took a breath in sync. "But I didn't. It was like you simply disappeared while taking a leak."
Starsky had the oddest impulse to laugh. It was either that, or cry. Except Starsky men didn't cry, they bucked up and took it on the chin.
"When you're going through hell, keep going, dziecko."
"What?" Hutch asked.
He hadn't even realized he'd said it out loud. "Something… my Grandma told me." Starsky bit the inside of his cheek, memories pressing in. His father's death, that horrible year afterwards in New York. But even more, he remembered Hutch. The thirteen-year old Ken haloed in light, youthful Cadet Hutchinson studying with him after hours in the academy library, and then later, Hutch bending over him in an Italian restaurant. Hutch catching him before he fell down a flight of stairs because his belly churned and his legs had given out on him. Always with him at the worst of times.
"Finding you was my only priority." Hutch carefully fitted his arms around Starsky, just as he'd done so many times before. "Because you are the most important thing in my life."
Starsky let go of himself in stages, the rigid controls crumbling as he sagged into Hutch's arms. No tears - that was not allowed, but he turned into Hutch, seeking comfort and peace.
Hutch nodded against his cheek. "We've been knitted together since that night on the road to Duluth, Starsk. Why else would we keep coming back together, against incredible odds?" He placed a sweet, chaste kiss on Starsky's temple. "I can handle anything you want to tell me."
Not willing to move from his sanctuary, Starsky flashed on that night so long ago. On Kenny Hutchinson holding out his hand and reeling Davey into the light. "When I was thirteen, right before your mom stopped, a truck driver picked me up when I was hitchhiking. He… pulled down my jeans and.…." The words ripped out of him, brutal anger scouring his guts. "Tried to fuck my ass." It was easier to talk about ancient history, and he knew Hutch would grasp the correlation to the present.
"My mother suspected," Hutch said, leading him over to the bed.
"She told you?" Starsky sat, so incredibly tired that his legs trembled.
"Not then." Hutch sighed, running his hand very lightly over Starsky's hair. "Years later. When I was a senior in high school, someone I knew was attacked. My mom was working in the ER that night. She gave me a call because his parents weren't around. Until then, I never knew that guys could get…"
Hutch was staring out the window, but he turned his hand, curling the back of his fingers along Starsky's jaw line. A lover's caress. Starsky inhaled, absorbing the idea of him and Hutch together. Something positive to block the memories of black-robed shadows stealing his self-respect by the fistful.
"Yeah." Hutch sat down on the edge of the bed and slid over until he was hip and thigh against Starsky. "We took Jack home to give him some time to heal up before he told his parents. In the end, he never did."
"Jack Mitchell?" Hutch's friend, who had died of a brain tumor only three months earlier.
"One and the same." Hutch nodded, finally looking at Starsky. Compassion and love radiated from every part of him. "By some coincidence, I got a letter from you that very day. When Mom saw your name on the envelope, she started to cry. She said she never should have let you go. That she'd always suspected that you were molested."
On some other day, finding out that his dark secret had never been much of a secret might have hurt more, but it was only so much water under the bridge now. "I thought…" Starsky tried to sort out what he wanted to say, what he wanted to give to Hutch. The burden already seemed incredibly lighter. Most of what had happened at the old zoo, Hutch must have already guessed, anyway.
"I thought," Starsky said again, "that if I kept quiet and just pretended nothing happened, I'd forget."
"God, no." Starsky let out a bitter laugh. "But if that hadn't happened, then I'd never have met you - and as much as I never wanted to think about Mitch…" He had to swallow past the dry lump blocking his throat. How did the memory of the trucker still have such power? Mitch had been his own personal bogeyman until last night when a bunch of drugged-out weirdos won the role. "It was kinda like good and bad were twisted together, and I had to take the bad to get the good. I went through hell, but I got a friend."
"Oh, babe." Hutch sounded rueful.
Starsky tried a smile on for size. It didn't quite fit yet, but he'd always been resilient, it would soon. "Dumb, huh? Makes no sense."
"No sense at all." Hutch breathed in and kissed him so lightly that Starsky barely felt the brush of their lips.
This wasn't what he wanted, and it was. This was what he'd wanted for longer than he could remember.
"Hell of a time for you to tell me, Hutch." Starsky had to work to keep his voice from wobbling. As if was, he sounded strained to his own ears, with a tight fierceness that might have warned off anyone else. His first impulse was to pull away from Hutch, who wasn't holding onto him in any way. This was all too fast, too soon and not right. Except that it was more than right. "You remember me reading your encyclopedias?"
"Greek Gods." Hutch smiled at him. It was the same smile Hutch gave him nearly every morning, the one that said you make me happy.
"I had a hard-on, there in your bedroom."
"For Athena?" Hutch asked, but there was a knowing in his eyes. That Starsky had been attracted to him too apparently came as no surprise.
Starsky clenched his fists. "I was so damned confused. I'd think of you, and see Mitch, and then freeze inside. But, slowly, he kind of faded - and the thought of you endured."
"And you survived," Hutch whispered.
"You got me through this, Hutch." A little more of the pain leached away when Hutch cupped his hands around Starsky's fists. "I never doubted that you'd come. Not once."
He let himself feel the various aches and pains in his body, acknowledged the horrible wounds in his anus. He was hurt, and he would heal. He'd done it before, but it was hard work.
The room was very still. The clock on the bedside ticked loudly. Outside, a car pulled into the back alley - some delivery for Helene's. Starsky listened to the driver talking to the French accented chef downstairs. Smelled the spicy scent of a clove cigarette. Bottles clinked as they were unloaded, and a seagull called out overhead. No matter what had gone on at the old zoo, Bay City still moved forward through the day. The sun had risen. People went to work, children went to school, and the police had rounded up Marcus' followers
"Can you give a statement?" Hutch asked after a long time.
"I don't want to." Starsky huddled into the bedspread. He was cold, and he could feel a wetness at the back. He was bleeding. "But if I didn't, I'd feel like the worst kinda hypocrite." He tightened his resolve, already picturing the taunts and ridicule from some of his fellow officers. "We're always pressing women to testify against their… attackers. I can't do any less."
"It's just harder than you ever imagined."
"Oh, damn." Starsky forced back the pressure of tears by sheer will. He wasn't about to cry now. Maybe when things were less intense. When he didn't feel like one huge raw nerve.
"Starsky, I know this is the worst possible time to prove how much…" Hutch graced his knuckles along Starsky's cheekbone, running his thumb along Starsky's bottom lip. "But I am here. I am not going anywhere. I'm at your back, beside you - wherever you want me to be. Just know."
"I always did, Hutch." Starsky caught Hutch’s hand, kissing the knuckles where a bruise was forming. Caused by slugging one of those black-robed bastards. "I'm a mess. If you can wait…"
"A long, long time, babe. We'll both go over every obstacle together, just like in the academy," Hutch vowed.
Starsky sniggered, holding his chest. It was entirely possible that he had a cracked rib, because laughing hurt, and yet, he wanted to have something to laugh about in the worst way. "You were always tripping over those big feet at the academy. I kept having to haul you over the walls and through those damned barrels like extra weight." He struggled to get off the bed, breathing against the pain.
"Hey!" Hutch protested with a tight grin. "Who could run a mile in just over a minute?"
"Who could beat you any day of the week running down a purse snatcher on the street?" Starsky countered. He reached out to his partner, unable to get off the soft mattress.
Hutch leaned into Starsky, supporting him until he got his feet under him. Starsky clung to him, tightening his stomach when a wave of nausea hit. That would teach him to take water from a stranger. Even a pretty one with vacant, haunted eyes.
"A while back, you said something about a hospital?" Starsky asked lightly, clutching the bedspread around his shoulders.
"You ready to go now?" Hutch bent his head, kissing him again.
Starsky opened himself up to hope and felt a dizzying love sweep through him. He'd be all right. He had Hutch on his side. "You got something I can wear, Blondie?"
"That t-shirt you tried on never did fit me anyway." Hutch caught his breath, pulling away reluctantly. "Are you hungry? I have some leftover roast beef from the party Saturday night. I could make sandwiches."
Starsky gripped Hutch's hand more tightly, holding on to the one person who gave his life substance. "Pack some for later, they never feed me in the hospital."
"How about some weak tea in a plaid thermos?" Hutch handed over the shirt.
"Sounds like old times."