Fairy Tales and Other Lies
Five years in a POW camp changes a man. It strips away your humanity the same way the enemy strips the flesh from your back. Piece by wretched piece. At first you try to hold in the screams. Think of anything to distract from you the crack of the whip as it swings through the air, the agony as the leather flays your back, your buttocks, your legs. Over and over.
You try to cling to happy memories - your home, your parents, a lover – to escape the pain and save your sanity. You envision hair the color of corn silk, eyes clear as a summer lake, while the wetness runs down your leg.
In time, what few pleasant memories John Colby had deserted him along with his pride. Memories of warmth and belonging dissolved into nightmares that took root from his earliest years. Sometime John could still feel his father’s meaty hands and smell his stale cigarette breath and thought how ironic it was that he’d come to be thankful for the beatings the old man had dished out. They’d toughened John up enough to survive the South Asian hellhole when softer men fell apart. Men whose fathers had played catch with them in picket-fenced yards, whose mothers had packed their school lunches and tucked them in bed at night. Those kind only expected to find good in the world and crumbled when forced to look into the face of evil.
John refused to be soft. His run-ins with evil in all its various shapes made him determined to survive. Abuse, poverty, abandonment, rejection. He’d outsmarted all of it. There was a time he thought he might actually fight against evil. Back when he was desperate to get as far from home, be as different from his father, as possible.
He was good with a gun, could wring out any confession with a twist of an arm; or simply pound a man into the pavement. With skills like those he figured he could either be a crook or a cop, and he’s spent too many years in a kind of prison already.
So he enrolled in the police academy in sunny California and for a while had a peek into heaven. Just like in story books, he saw that angels came with blond hair and blue eyes. Smiles that lit up a room. But angels had a way of looking too deeply into one’s soul, seeing through to the rotten core.
In country was a new kind of hell where devils had slanted eyes and tinted skin. The darkness he found there wanted to swallow him whole. After a while he stopped fighting against it, but rather learned to absorb it. It was so easy. As seductive as a high-priced whore. After a while, it flowed through his veins like blood.
John lingers in the shower. He lets the lather run down his back, drip off his elbows, pool at his toes. Even in a Spartan, masculine retreat like Vinnie’s Gym, it feels like a luxury. There’s been so few times in his life he’s felt clean.
He remembers being in this same shower room years ago – in another lifetime it seems - when Vinnie’s was a popular hang out with his fellow cadets. John closes his eyes and envisions steamy water streaming from the slender, well-muscled body of Ken Hutchinson, a police trainee like himself. When Hutch catches his eyes, John quickly averts them. If Hutch thought John was looking too long, he never says. But as they towel off, Hutch invites him out to grab a beer with another buddy of his.
John eyes snap open at the sudden, loud pounding on metal lockers and raucous shouts. For an instant he thinks he’s back in ‘Nam. He chokes back a sob and braces himself against a wall. But then remembers where he is and why, and pulls himself together.
He’s devised a meticulous plan to accomplish an important job. Ingenious yet cold even by his standards. A casual stop by Vinnie’s to work off some steam and a few well-placed words with the fatherly proprietor sets it in motion. He knows Vinnie would make a call that would reunite old friends. The commotion tells him his first move has been well-played. The wave of terror is replaced by excitement.
John turns off the water and wraps a towel around his waist. He steps into the locker room and finds it empty. After a few minutes of looking around, Hutch pops his head out of a laundry cart. John’s uniform hat sits crazily on his head and military issue shoes perch on his hands. Even under the hat Hutch’s hair glows just the way John remembers.
“You’re out of uniform,” Hutch greets him in a goofy German accent like he’s reciting a line from “Stalag 17.” Silly or not, something shoots through John like lightning. He’s forgotten how warm a smile can be. Like a shot of whisky on a cold day.
He wants to freeze the moment and have it all to himself. But, like trying to stop the plummet of a roller coaster once it's reached its summit, he knows he can’t.
“Where’s the other one?” He asks. Starsky’s here as sure as the moon follows the sun.
Starsky and Hutch are partners now. No surprise there. Sure, the three of them hung around enough to be called the Three Musketeers once or twice, but by the time John dropped out, Starsky and Hutch had become more like Dumas’ Corsican Brothers, joined at the hip. So in tune they felt each other’s emotions.
There was no getting between them, not that he hadn’t tried. Subtle looks and gestures, a few cunning words he knew weren’t lost - just ineffective. The realization stung more than his father’s belt.
Together, they’d have outlasted him in that fucking POW camp. Apart though, he doubts they would have made it a day.
Dave Starsky pops out of a locker holding John’s uniform jacket then sets it aside. He rolls up a towel and cracks it at him like they’re in junior high, chasing John down until he tumbles into a laundry cart. They laugh as if nothing bad has ever happened. How can they do that? John wonders.
John knows Hutch’s wife left him in a messy divorce. He can guess the reasons why. He knows the partners work the streets now, handling drug dealers, pimps and gangs like others do retail clerks. Taking on cases that are the worst of the worst. John congratulates himself once more. They’re perfect for the job he has in mind.
“You don’t know how good it is to see you guys.” John smooths on a smile and they help to pull him up, each extending a hand. They lean against the lockers and fill each other in on the past seven years like time-lapse photography. The Air Force, the POW camp followed by months of rehab in Hawaii.
John relishes the attention. They listen to his stories like they actually care. Their sincerity is so real he can practically touch it. For an instant he longs to grab hold of it with both hands, wrap it around himself and never let go. It would have been so easy once. Yet other feelings he’d thought he’d left dead and buried rise up reborn. Jealousy, longing. And the most powerful of all - unnatural desire. Something his father never could beat out of him.
A flare bursts in John’s gut and threatens to surge up his throat. He swallows it down. Now it’s his turn to deal out some torment.
John makes another of his well thought out moves. He tells them of a marriage that ended before it ever really started, a little boy who hasn’t had a chance to know his father. He wants to see him before he has to leave again for another assignment. Lying comes so easily now. Sometimes it even feels like the truth.
Sympathy shimmers like stars in their eyes. “You want us to help you find her?” Hutch asks.
”No, that’s okay.”
John learned when reeling in a catch not to jerk the line too quickly. He wants the hook to sink deep so his prize won’t slip away. He explains that he’s meeting someone at his ex-wife’s old apartment who he thinks can help him.
“If you change your mind you can find us at my place.”
The words roll off Hutch’s tongue as if it's the most natural thing in the world to consider Starsky and him as one entity. Christ. John knows he didn’t leave the academy a day too soon. He cut himself free, even though he'd left pieces of his sanity behind. Now he has no more commitments. No more loyalties.
He turns his head away.
One down, one to go. John Colby only has three more days to find and kill Warren Karpel, a protected witness in a high profile case, or the pot of gold he’s been promised will disappear into the mists like Brigadoon. He longs to disappear into the mists, too, where he can hide from the world for a hundred years.
He isn’t one of the best in his line of work based on luck and a steady hand. His police training has taught him the importance of research as well. He’s discovered Karpel’s soft underbelly. A beautiful new wife named Karen whose former husband died in Viet Nam like so many others. She has a young son, too. A tale with an irresistible blend of tragedy and innocence.
The fact that the dead soldier’s name happens to be John is merely a happy coincidence. It doesn’t really matter in the long run. John Colby is an accomplished liar, able to create any story he wishes to be believed.
He smiles into his beer. He has Starsky and Hutch believing he is the soldier returned from the grave, wanting to see his ex-wife and the young son he adores. For a few hours John enjoys feeling like a hero again. He has the detectives looking under every rock in Bay City to help him. How they must love fairy tale endings.
Hutch has become the White Knight, with Starsky as his lodestar. John Colby is just a black hole devouring everything in its path.
When the Corsican brothers join John at the bar to give him their report, he notes how Starsky props his feet proprietarily on Hutch’s chair; how Hutch leans onto Starsky’s outstretched leg. For a moment he forgets about the Karpels. He feels the heat between them and he burns.
Time is running out. Garvin, the man who hired him to kill Warren Karpel, is getting antsy. Questioning his logic for bringing the two cops in on the hunt. John Colby reveal his reasons.
“Well, I still don’t like it,” Garvin tells him.
John pours himself a drink from a crystal decanter. The alcohol scalds his throat. “It’s not for you to like or dislike. Starsky and Hutch are my problem.”
It’s not usual for John to feel defensive about his tactics, as long as he gets the job done. Why does question himself now?
But it feels so good to see Hutch again. Too good. It reminds him what being alive was like.
Now Garvin’s threatening John.
Who does he think he is? John fumes. Suggesting he can take a contract out on me? Fuck that. Besides, I’ve been dying for years.
Somehow they’ve managed the near impossible and gotten a fix on Warren Karpel. Starsky heads into the little post office at a strip mall to get the exact address. John stays in the car with Hutch and continues the charade for just a few minutes more. A few more minutes to be John Colby, war hero and loving father, instead of John Colby, cold-blooded murderer.
He hands Hutch a picture of his “wife” that Hutch admires appropriately. The high he gets from having Hutch so near and all to himself is as powerful as a drug. John almost doesn’t want the charade to end. Then he spies Karen Karpel across the parking lot.
Hutch gets out of the car walks over to her. He smiles and introduces himself. His hair glows white-blond in the sun. John watches the exchange. He knows exactly what Hutch is telling her. A fantastic story of a hero come back to life. A fairy tale he expects her to believe. And she does like John knew she would. How could anyone not look into Hutch’s eyes and not believe the impossible?
John turns his back to them at their approach. The story is almost over and it’s time for his surprise ending. He pivots on his heel and faces them.
“What kind of sick joke is this?” Karen Karpel exclaims in horror at the man who is not – and never was - her husband.
Confusion passes over Hutch’s face. John feels another deep jolt, surprised that there’s something left inside to feel. His momentary pause reduces the force of his blow to Hutch’s mid-section but he folds from the unexpected attack anyway. Another chop from John’s hand knocks him to the ground.
John grabs Karen’s elbow and hustles her to her car. Starsky will be there in minutes. It won’t take him long to find Hutch collapsed in the alley. His partner’s senses when it comes to Hutch are better than a homing pigeon. John knows his attack on Hutch will only heighten Starsky’s rage at the deception.
Karen drives John to the house near the beach where she and Warren have been holed up, John’s pistol in her ribs. Her fingers are white on the wheel, her eyes huge. He can smell her fear but his demons are in complete control, immune to compassion and decency.
They pull off the road and exit the car. Warren Karpel is fishing from the rocky shoreline. The little boy skips rocks a few yards away. An idyllic father-son scene. If he believed in such things. There are special agents who have been assigned to protect the Karpels hidden among the rocks. John directs the backup Garvin has sent to take them out. He trusts no one other than himself to go after Karpel.
As he drags Karen down the stairs to the beach he hears the roar of the Torino up on the road. He expected no less. Starsky and Hutch will never let him get away. But it doesn’t matter. He’ll kill Karpel if it’s the last thing he does. Bloodlust is instinctual now. He’s lived from one job to another while dying a little in between.
It’s Hutch who follows him down the stairs and out to the beach.
“Hold it John!” Hutch’s command trips him up and loses his grip on his gun. It flies from his hand and he dives into the sand to retrieve it. Karen scurries away from him like a crab.
“Don’t do it.” The sun glints off the huge Magnum Hutch points at him. At his full height, Hutch looks down at him like an avenging angel. John sees determination in Hutch’s eyes, but so much more. Anguish, disbelief, betrayal.
For a minute he thinks Hutch won’t pull the trigger. He knows Hutch is remembering the third Musketeer. He’s not so much asking John to not kill Warren, as begging that John not force Hutch to kill him.
Whatever was between them has been wiped away like footprints in the sand. There’s just the here and now. John Colby stopped believing in heroes and fairy tales years ago.
He wipes the grit, and something else, from his eyes as he lays sprawled on the ground. The surf sounds like a cracking whip. “Hey, Hutch, you might as well shoot me right now cuz I’m not gonna make it through a trial. They’ll have a contract out on me tomorrow,” he tells him.
“That’s your problem, John.”
“No, it’s yours, Hutch.” He staggers to his feet clutching a fistful of sand. They pant in near unison. The rush of adrenaline is as thrilling as lust.
Hutch’s eyes never leave him, watching for any sign of weakness. John makes sure he won’t find any.
“I should have finished you in the alleyway.” John parries as he regains his feet.
Hutch reaches down to pick up the gun while still sizing him up.
“I’m surprised you didn’t.”
“I don't kill anybody I don’t get paid to kill.” He tells him coldly. Hate me Hutch, he silently dares. Hate me the way I hate you. It’s so much easier that way.
“Why’s that, John?” It’s as if Hutch is reading his mind by some spark of magic that remains.
Do you want me to admit that I loved you once? Well, I won’t because it hurts too much. Love makes you weak and in the real world only the strong survive.
“Killing got to be real easy. I’m good at it. A man outta do what he’s good at.” He empties his soul like vomit, yet maintains his shit-eating grin.
Hutch should be repelled - distracted at the very least – but he’s not. It occurs to John that Hutch has seen evil’s shadow trailing him all along, just chose to look past it. Now he faces it head on.
“Drop the sand,” he commands.
John opens his fist and the sand scatters to the wind.
John turns slowly, but when Hutch moves in he seizes his opportunity. He kicks out with his leg in a martial arts trick but Hutch twists and dodges. He remembers how they used to grapple at the academy, Hutch’s height and grace almost always giving him a superiority that strangely satisfied John rather than rankled.
John’s learned a few tricks in Southeast Asia. New moves and a bet that love has softened Hutch encourages him. But he gets it wrong. Again. Hutch is as tough – if not more so – than he was seven years ago. He deflects every move and pulls no punches.
Like a cheap sexual release, their fight is intense but doesn’t last long. In a few minutes Hutch has him on the ground and John feels a tingling frustration. John is pulled up by the shirt front and forced to look Hutch in the eyes. All his confusion and disappointment has vanished. Hutch understands him now and is repelled at last.
“We don’t get paid extra to kill people either,” Hutch tells him.
Starsky comes up to them from behind. He smoothly pulls a pair of handcuffs from Hutch’s back pocket and hands Hutch the gun that’s been forgotten in the fight.
Starsky grabs John’s wrist and snaps on the cuffs as Hutch reaches out and braces himself on Starsky’s arm. Starsky holds rock steady. Their touch isn’t lost on John. Warmth that glows like embers rather than a fire that flares up only to quickly burn out.
There’s a foul taste on John’s lips. Damn you. The advantage is still all yours.
Love hasn’t diminished him, it’s made him invincible.
How can you fight something like that?
He'll never know.
John Colby lays on his bed with his hands behind his head and stares at the concrete wall. “Stone walls do not a prison make nor iron bars a cage.”* He smiles grimly. Where had he heard that? It must have been in a poem he’d come across once. Back when he’d read poetry and believed in fairy tales.
Most of his life he’s been in a prison of one kind or another. Already his fellow inmates have learned to stay away from him. If his lightning strike moves that can snap a wrist or wrench a knee doesn’t scare them off, the cold malevolence in his eyes holds even the most reckless at bay.
He closes his eyes and pictures a blond-haired, blue-eyed knight, the California sun glinting off his armor. But he knows there’ll be no white knight to breach his fortress and rescue him. This story has no happy ending.
Fuck them all. John’s body responds to the demons inside and he allows himself to be pulled into their fiery depths. His grip tightens and he searches for the only release he knows. Then soars.
If I have freedom in my love
And in my soul am free,
Angels alone, that soar above
Enjoy such liberty*
*To Althea from Prison” by Richard Lovelace