The bullet missed Hutch's head by centimetres, burying itself deep in the plasterboard wall behind him. A split second later and his brains would have been splattered over the warehouse floor.
Hutch loosed off three rounds as he rolled behind the protective cover of stacked metal containers, and then listened intently for the sounds of any movement. There were none. Taking in several deep breaths to slow his heart rate, he counted to ten.
"Gorman, where the hell are you?" he hissed.
Seconds passed. Just as he was about to call out again, a shaky voice answered him.
"Over here, Hutch. I'm okay."
Hutch rolled his eyes. That wasn't going to have been his second question.
Hesitantly, gun raised in front of him, Hutch edged forwards. He saw Gorman standing over the prone body of their attacker, the fear in his eyes mixed with an unwarranted self-satisfaction.
"We got 'im, Hutch. The streets are gonna be a little safer tonight."
Oh man, Hutch thought to himself. "Where were you, Gorman. You were supposed to have my back."
"I -- I was -- I did. Geez, Hutch, my gun jammed. See."
Gorman aimed his gun just beyond where Hutch was standing, blanching when he pulled the trigger and a bullet ripped past his partner.
Hutch glared disgustedly at the younger man. His controlled tone was more intimidating than if he'd yelled.
"Put on the safety catch and holster your weapon."
"I'm s-sorry. But honest, it jammed. I'm telling you..." His ashen complexion suffused to bright red.
"Gorman, just put it away and go radio this in."
Hutch's shoulders slumped as he watched Gorman retreat to the car. If Starsky didn't get back soon, chances were he'd be the one looking for a new partner -- a permanent one.
Back at the precinct, Hutch's conversation with Dobey was terse.
He paced angrily around the office. "Captain, he's just not up to par. In fact, he's a positive danger. I can't work with him any more -- not if I want to stay alive."
"Now listen here, Hutchinson. The matter is out of my hands. The Chief has made it very clear that Gorman is to be on active duty. No desk jobs, no directing traffic, no school patrol..."
"Lucky for the kids..."
"Oh come on; just because he's the Governor's nephew shouldn't mean squat; he barely scraped through as a cadet. How he's survived three years since then, god alone knows. And I sure as hell don't believe that he scored so highly in his last firearms check. You know there were rumours..."
"That's enough, Hutchinson. I don't trade in rumours. Now either sit down or stand still, you're making me nervous."
Dobey broke the pencil he'd been holding. He threw it at the waste basket. "The Governor wants him to learn from the best."
Hutch slumped into a chair, shaking his head in frustration. "Flattery won't work, Captain. He practically pees himself when we're chasing perps. And he looks like he's gonna barf when he has to draw his gun. If he's with me much longer the 'best' is likely to end up the deadest." he paused to calm his voice. "When's Starsky going to be fit for duty?"
Dobey sighed. "The Doc's last report said his bones were healing okay..."
"...buuut, the shrink was a little concerned for his mental attitude."
"Still keeping it all inside, huh?"
Hutch's eyes narrowed. If only his partner would change his mind and agree to see him, he was sure they could talk it through.
It was only after several minutes of talking with Martin Randall in the office, his beer glass almost empty, that Starsky fully realised all was not well. He was starting to feel woozy and noticed the smirk on Judson's face.
"I'm disappointed in you Detective Starsky" Randall sneered.
"Whaddya mean -- my name's Mike Davey..."
"You didn't see Judson's visitor this morning, did you. Al Poyser -- he recognised you, and I made a few checks. So you can give up the pretence."
Starsky's legs buckled beneath him as he started out of his chair. Neither man tried to soften his fall. Randall called out for two of his hired help. They dragged Starsky to the stable.
He'd been working his butt off undercover for several weeks as a stable-hand come general handy man, falling into bed each night after a long shower to rid himself of the stinking odour of mucking out the horses. He had almost begun to lose his nervousness of the unpredictable creatures.
In his befuddled state, as he was thrown into the corner of the double stall which usually housed the biggest and meanest of the stallions, Starsky knew that progress in that direction was about to suffer a setback.
He could hear the skittish creature snickering and snorting, smelling his fear as the muscle men laid into him with glowering pleasure. Starsky wriggled and writhed in a pathetic attempt to escape their bruising fists, but he was in no state to fight back effectively. For a brief moment the pummelling stopped. Starsky clung to consciousness.
The men coaxed the excitable animal back into the stall, scaring it witless when they threw in handfuls of firecrackers. Hooves began flying in all directions in a desperate bid to escape the close proximity of the sudden fusillade. Without the strength to move, Starsky knew he was going to die.
He heard a voice.
"Mike, hold on, I'm going to open the door."
It was Shawn, Randall's young son, whom Starsky had befriended when he saw that his father largely ignored the boy.
"No, Shawn, just get help." he called out weakly.
Starsky's mind had blocked precisely what followed, and it was only when he regained consciousness in the hospital days later that some of the jigsaw was put into place for him.
That and his recurring dream. The horrific image of Shawn being trampled by the terrified horse had been the last thing Starsky had witnessed. Seconds later, he himself had been kicked in the head and crashed into oblivion.
Whether his cracked ribs and extensive bruising was courtesy of the frenzied horse, or the hammer blows of his two-legged assailants, was a moot point. His fractured skull had been the most serious of his physical injuries, but he couldn't rid himself of a deep lethargy. Nor could he explain to the psychiatrist his inability to purge himself by talking of the incident. Worst of all was that he couldn't face Hutch. Searching for the reason left him more frustrated than any of them.
Gorman was late.
He'd annoyed Hutch at the end of last night's shift when he'd said he wanted them to be proper partners -- like Hutch was used to -- and start taking it in turns to pick the other up each morning. Hutch had forced himself to hold his tongue; never in a million years, could Gorman even come close to taking the place of Starsky. Not till long after hell froze over -- and then some. He'd only agreed for this one day because his car was in the shop; the carburettor in need of serious attention.
"I'll be at your pad at 7, sharp. Okay?" The simpering young man had said.
It was unlike Hutch to be obsessed with timekeeping, but he checked his watch for the tenth time. 7.13.
He sighed heavily, shaking his head in exasperation. It wasn't even as if they had any major cases to deal with. Hutch hadn't known whether to be pissed at Dobey for keeping them from anything that might put them in life-threatening situations, or somewhat relieved. He was tired of feeling that he had to be sharp-eyed for the both of them; never knowing if Gorman was even the least bit mindful of their surroundings; alert to potential dangers.
Whatever the reason for Gorman's delay, it didn't take much common sense to get a message through to him. Two more minutes, and Hutch would call the Precinct -- making it official; stop covering for the jerk's petty mistakes.
No sooner had he picked up the receiver, than there was a vigorous knock at his door.
"Hey Hutch, s'only me. Up and at 'em."
His ridiculously keen attitude -- simulated in a way that only emphasised Starsky's genuine, endearing enthusiasm -- added to Hutch's irritation. That Gorman looked totally unrepentant when Hutch threw open the front door didn't help either.
"Morning, bud -- wasn't sure if you'd be up yet." Gorman giggled.
"It's a quarter past 7, Gorman. We agreed on 7 sharp." His hackles rose at Gorman's calling him 'bud' -- but he said nothing more.
"Nuh-uh, Mr Huffy -- 7.30. We definitely said 7.30. I worked it all out -- what time I'd need to get up, shower, eat breakfast. I even factored in bad traffic -- but as you can see, it wasn't too heavy, which is why I'm EARLY..."
"It was 7 -- it's always 7."
They both stood in the open doorway; Hutch waiting for Gorman to lead the way to his car; Gorman staying put, staring wide-eyed at Hutch as if waiting for him to apologise for being mistaken.
"Go -- we're late enough." Hutch growled.
Gorman cocked his head, turned around and ambled towards his car, flinching with exaggeration when the front door slammed shut with such force the whole building seemed to shake.
He opened the passenger door for Hutch, polishing away an invisible speck of dirt from the roof as he did so. The top-of-the-range vehicle had probably cost more than Hutch would earn in a year -- two maybe, with all the extras. It smelled new, and it was spotless. It was obviously Gorman's pride and joy, but not in the same way as Starsky's Torino was to him. This was a status symbol, something which would make him feel superior to his colleagues; something to impress his peer group. Childishly, Hutch wished he'd been chewing gum, so that he could attach the sticky wad to the side of his seat.
The day dragged by, but finally they were heading back to the Precinct. Gorman had insisted on leaving his vehicle at the station, not wanting to run the risk of its being vandalised or stolen. They'd swapped it for a run-down pool car, much in the same league as Hutch's battered automobile; which also meant that Gorman was happy for Hutch to be behind the wheel. With only a few reports to type up, Hutch was planning to head over to The Pits to sink a few beers with Huggy, free of Gorman for a few hours at least.
"I gotta date with a real sweet chick." Gorman's voice was leery with anticipation. "Met her at a club last weekend."
Hutch sighed in disbelief. He'd been under the impression that Gorman was engaged to some society girl.
"She's got a friend, if you need some company, Hutch. A real honey, Dina says; not too shy, if you get my drift. Into older men, Dina says..."
Hutch's attention was drawn to a man walking quickly along the sidewalk.
"Hutch, I said..." "Can it, Gorman. Over there, look, at the crossing. Joey Costa..."
"Costa? Who's he?"
"An old associate of Al Poyser."
"Ah... The Randall case. Perhaps we should call for another Unit to take over. We're about due off-shift."
"There's a warrant out on Costa too, but yeah, he might know where Poyser is."
"Sounds like a personal vendetta to me, Hutch. Or a guilty conscience."
"Keep your opinions to yourself, Gorman. Dammit, he's seen us."
Pushing his way through other pedestrians, Costa took off over the crossing and down the road to Hutch's right. Hutch had to wait for a couple of cars to clear the intersection, but was keeping his eye on the sprinting man. As soon as he could, he put his foot on the gas. Costa was fast, but Hutch was gaining on him, watching as he sped into an alleyway. Hutch knew it was a dead-end.
The car squealed to a halt. Hutch and Gorman both jumped out and drew their guns. Costa had disappeared.
Gorman held back while Hutch tried several doors.
"Guess he's gone." Gorman sounded relieved.
Hutch heard metal on metal from above. He saw two shadowy figures on the fire-escape. Several shots rang out, and then it was quiet.
The radio message came through to Despatch -- 10-18 Officer Down...
Starsky was in the stable. The smell of sweat and fear was rank. There was a confusing flurry of hooves and limbs as he cowered on the floor. Looking up, the horse had became a person. The stark brightness of a strip-light being switched on hurt his eyes; Hutch was standing over him. Starsky reached out, but was rewarded only with a brutal kick in his stomach, followed by another to his ribs.
He didn't understand. He feebly called out his partner's name, but before he could ask why, a blow to his head brought darkness.
Nurse Chilcott -- Nurse Chilly, he'd have called her if he'd been in his right mind -- woke him from his nightmare.
"Been having a nice little sleep, Mr Starsky?" Like she cared; but he was too weary for politeness, and said nothing.
"You have a session with Dr Benson. Up you get."
If he'd been the Doctor, Starsky would have lost patience with himself long before now. The poor guy was only doing his job, gently encouraging him to break through the barrier he'd erected. Starsky wasn't being purposely obtuse. He was having just as much difficulty in finding the key.
"...the strength of your relationship, David. Are you ready to talk to Ken?"
His heart began racing; his head felt ready to explode. It was all he could do to keep from throwing up. The images in his head were muddled, incomprehensible. He stood up suddenly, his chair crashing to the floor. He was in a cold sweat and stumbled to the corner of the room. He slid down the wall, put his arms over his head and began to rock back and forth.
"Okay, David. Enough for now. Breathe, David, breathe. Slowly; that's right. I'll help you back to your room."
Starsky felt a needle in his arm. He could succumb to the quiet world of the sedative.
It was only later that a half overheard conversation while the psychiatrist wheeled him back to his room came sharply into focus.
They had passed by two uniformed officers who were standing outside a hospital room.
"You can bet your bottom dollar that if Gorman's involved with an 'Officer Down' report, expect the worst."
"He's a real Jonah, man. Hutchinson wasn't looking good..."
Hutch. Oh god. Hutch was hurt. Starsky slipped out of his bed. He looked into the corridor both ways -- right, no left -- no -- right. Eventually he saw a policeman slouched on a chair outside the room..
"Hutch, Detective Hutchinson...?" he asked him.
"Sorry man, he's gone." The young officer scrutinised the curly headed man dressed in pyjamas, standing up quickly when he swayed unsteadily. "Oh, jeez, you're... hey, you don't look so good."
"Detective Starsky. What are you doing out of bed." The sharp tones of Nurse Chilcott made the young policeman flinch.
"Sorry ma'am, he was asking for Detective Hutchinson. I thought he was gonna pass out just then..."
She relented a little. "Very well, Officer. Thank you. Come on, Detective Starsky, back to your room. There's someone asking to see you."
Starsky shook his head. "No -- no visitors. I can't -- not now..."
As they rounded the corner, Starsky blinked to clear his vision. "Hutch? Oh my god, I thought you were dead. The police officer said..."
A relieved smile replaced Hutch's tentative expression. "Hey, Starsk. I'm fine. You, on the other hand, look like crap."
Chuckling, Starsky closed his eyes and tears rolled down his face.
"...and the dumb sonofabitch fell over his own feet and shot himself in the leg. Took the heat off me, but he caught another bullet in the back. Gorman would have it that he was only trying to push me out of the way, which is odd because he was nowhere near me."
Hutch had been back to check on both his recovering partners since Gorman's surgery; thankful that with his family in almost constant attendance, his own presence was now deemed unnecessary. He'd only been calling in on Gorman on his way to sit with Starsky.
"But he'll be okay?"
"Sure. Few months recovery and he'll be back on his feet. Apparently he's decided to hang up his gun. Now the world will be a safer place!"
Starsky raised his eyebrows. Hutch gave his partner a cautious glance..
"How about you, Starsk? How're you doing?"
Starsky managed a crooked smile. "Headaches seem to have gone. Psychosomatic, Benson said."
Starsky's eyes had hardly left Hutch's face when he'd told him about the incident in the alley, which had also left Costa dead, and the second man -- Al Poyser -- wounded and under arrest. The mention of Poyser had been the catalyst for Starsky. After a good session with Benson, the cause of his melancholy was rooted out.
His mouth quivered. "I'm so sorry, Hutch."
"Why for, Buddy? You'll be out of here soon; and no more new partners for me till you're back to work."
Starsky sighed and nodded. "I blamed you, you know, for Poyser giving me away. Afterwards -- subconsciously -- I guess I thought you would have known he was involved in the scam. Maybe I was expecting you to come charging in on your white horse, or something!" He laughed pitifully, shuddering at his bad choice of words.
"We were on our way. As soon as we received intel that Poyser was back in Bay City and had been hired by Judson, we were on our way..."
"I know, Hutch, I know that now. No-one's fault. If I'd seen Poyser, I could have gotten out of there. It was just bad timing. I'd been so close to getting enough evidence."
"Randall rolled over. He was devastated by his boy's death."
Starsky's eyes clouded. "Shawn... he shouldn't even have been there..."
"He was a brave kid." Hutch said softly.
Starsky looked away. "Yeah. He was a brave kid."
He closed his eyes, swallowing hard against the threatening tears. He was still low enough to be embarrassed by his vulnerability, even with Hutch. Deep down though, he knew that the two of them were too close to be distracted for long by such emotions.
Hutch put his hand on the back of his partner's head and pulled him into his shoulder. "S'Okay, Starsk, we're okay. We'll get through this, hey Buddy?" he said softly.
Hutch released him and patted his partner's face. His eyes were asking for reassurance.
Starksy's broad grin reappeared for the first time in a while. "Yeah. Together Hutch, one way or another, we'll get through anything."