"…and the special tonight is large-shell pasta cooked al dente and stuffed with ground sirloin, spinach, parmesan and romano cheeses, oregano, basil, garlic, and pepper, sauced with the house's special-recipe spicy marinara."
Detective Babcock's recitation of the Italian restaurant's signature dish for the night came over the transceiver in Detective Ken Hutchinson's abused LTD yet again. "Damn, I'm tired of hearing that," quietly groused the lanky blond man.
David Starsky, his partner and occupant of the passenger seat, sighed unhappily. "Just makes me hungrier. I think I even smell it. Hey, you eat that apple you got at lunch?"
Hutchinson flicked his head and pointed his thumb toward the back seat. "It's all yours. Knock yourself out," he said tiredly.
A second later, the curly-haired detective was on his knees in the center of the bench seat, facing the very dimly lit and perilous back seat—that small space of unknown hazards he sometimes referred to as "the traveling Love Canal." He dug through newspapers, soiled napkins, all varieties of disposable cups coated with traces of coffee, cream, and sugar, plastic spoons, and other items best suited for garbage cans. Then he spied a peek of red coming from under—what the hell is this? he thought as he gingerly picked it up by one edge. As soon as the streetlight illuminated it, he identified a three-pack of Trojans.
Starsky grinned from ear to ear and Groucho'd his eyebrows. Oh, you naughty boy! Does this mean you and Sonia . . . A sneaked glance at his partner convinced Starsky that Hutch was not paying him any attention. He cleared his throat loudly to cover the crinkling sounds of the wrapper as he secreted the condoms in his leather jacket's inner pocket. "Uh, I found it. Got anything clean I can wipe it off with?"
The fair-haired man rolled his blue eyes. "A little dirt won't hurt you, you know, Starsk. Might even do you some good."
Starsky snorted and twisted himself back into position. "Ain't dirt I'm worried about, partner." He waggled his eyebrows several times while he buffed the fruit on his soiled T-shirt.
That brought a reluctant smile to Hutchinson's weary face. "So what's got you worried?"
Starsky chomped into the crisp, sweet fruit. Between chews, he managed to say, "You don't wanna know." He crunched in for the second bite before he had swallowed the first. "Why didn' I get th'inside job tonigh', huh? Least I look Italian." He fingered back some white flesh that escaped his mouth.
"But Babcock has experience as a waiter, Starsk. When there's a job where we need an inside man who can cram a double-decker sandwich into his mouth, recite the Declaration of Independence, and whistle Dixie all at the same time, I'll be the first to suggest you."
"You're too kind," Starsky retorted with mock gratitude.
Hutch sighed dramatically. "I know. It's a burden I have to live with," he said with exaggerated humbleness.
Starsky tossed the apple core into the back of the car. "Well, it's not fair. He gets to eat all he wants! And he don't even like Italian food." He shook his head while he silently wondered how anyone could not possibly adore the tastes, the aromas, the textures of Italy on a plate. "Why did it have to be Enrico's?" he moaned. "My favorite."
The blond laughed through his nose. "Starsk, every Italian restaurant is your favorite."
Before Starsky could respond, they heard Babcock say into his microphone, "Hey, where are those guys? Parisi's half an hour late. I don't think he's gonna show." There was a pause, during which they heard emphatically spoken Italian and clanging and chopping and other kitchen sounds. "Check with Dobey to see when I can pull out, okay? These … odors are wearin' on me. And my partner's getting dishpan hands." The mike transmitted a thumping sound and some rustling static. "Ow! What did you hit me for?"
Hutchinson and Starsky looked at each other in total amusement while they listened to Mama Patrone scold Babcock for talking into his shirt and not serving his customers their food while it was hot. They burst out in peals of laughter when they heard their colleague's muttered oath and desperate plea to call Dobey right away.
The blond detective busied himself with the requested call to their captain. Meanwhile, something in the way Babcock had said, "Where are those guys?" unconsciously got the darker detective humming Raindrops Keep Fallin' On My Head.
After signing out with Dobey, Hutchinson focused on the melody coming from his friend's throat. He recognized it within a few notes. He sat back to enjoy the catchy tune and play that part with the bicycle in the movie in his head.
Abruptly, Starsky stopped humming, which led Hutch to look at him. "Keep going, Starsk. I like that song."
"Yeah, I know you do. But I was just thinkin'."
Uh-oh, thought Hutchinson when he detected the philosophical tone that usually meant—
"Starsky," Hutch interrupted, his voice rising in subtle warning.
"Now hear me out, 'kay?" He didn't wait for a nod or a shake of the blond head. "If I fell off that cliff, would you come after me?"
Hutchinson sat upright and turned slightly toward his partner. "What kind of question is that? Besides, they jumped off, together, remember?" Irritated condescension stole into his tone. Of course he remembers. He's—we've—seen it five or six times.
"Of course I remember, dummy. But that was Butch and the Kid. I'm talkin' about you an' me."
Though it was hard to read Starsky's indigo eyes in the faint light, Hutch could feel his muscles tense and hear his breathing deepen. He knew first-hand of Starsky's fear of heights, and even flying to some extent. Yet he always seemed to be the first one to take on acrophobia-inflaming situations, as if he were thumbing his nose at the circumstances, or trying to deal with his fear by immersing himself in it. Maybe it's not such a stupid question after all. "No, I wouldn't." The light was good enough for him to see Starsky's eyes widen. "I'd catch you before you could fall." Simple, matter-of-fact.
The car's atmosphere seemed to glow from Starsky's exposed teeth. He emitted a minute, satisfied sigh, relaxed against the door, and resumed humming.
Several minutes ticked by, with the only other sounds coming from the restaurant. Then Hutch cleared his throat lightly and said, "Mmy turn."
Starsky studied his friend. There was the stutter, and the nervous tick of rubbing his thighs, and the sweat beads on his upper lip. Shit. I know what this is about. "Okay, pardner, shoot," he said in a passable John Wayne impersonation.
"Wwwhat if …" Hutchinson paused and wiped the perspiration from his lip. He took a deep breath and continued, "If I fell, well, again, you know?"
Starsky's heart quickened at the uncertainty and agony and panicky dread in Hutch's subdued voice. For the umpteenth time, he damned Ben Forest and his goons to the eternal fires of hell for raping his best friend's self-confidence and innocence. He knew his partner had been sorely tempted to reach for the needle when he was vulnerable and hurting. He leaned toward Hutch until he was only a puff away. "Ain't gonna happen," he whispered fervently, his eyes locked on Hutch's. "You won't fall. You were pushed, but the horse fell. You kicked its butt." He almost choked on the self-doubts that still plagued those sky-blue eyes. "And if you should fall, I'll be there to catch you, and we can kick that pony-ass together."
Neither moved for several moments. Then Hutch's eyes smiled, followed soon by his mouth. He cupped the back of Starsky's head in his hand for a few seconds before he leaned against the car door, snickering when he heard Babcock drone on about the special.
Then he took another step away from the horse.