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Distant Shores

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CHAPTER III

 

 

 

 

Starsky sat back in his chair and rubbed at his stinging eyes. He'd been reading at the computer terminal for hours, going through old police files. It was grisly reading. Unsolved suspicious deaths. Men who had died unnamed and unmourned. Every time Starsky determined that the body he was reading about wasn't Hutch, he gave a silent prayer of thanks. Some of these men had died horribly. It seemed urban crime wore the same face all over the globe.

There were other areas he planned to investigate, including the associates of Kurt Flavin and drug and jewel smuggling in the outback. Here in Sydney, he hadn't had much luck on those subjects, however; and he couldn't seem to help himself when it came to looking through files on dead John Does.

Starsky liked it in Australia. The friendly people didn't put on airs, try to sound like textbooks of grammar; they spoke the way they felt, using plenty of colorful slang, liberally employing cuss words and with voices that made him think of English accents with Southern twangs. Starsky seemed to fit in, to be accepted and respected. The feeling was pleasant for a man who hadn't tried to keep or make friendships. The police here had been very helpful. They had welcomed him by giving him full run of their records, and an occasional clerical worker to help him. The cops were as busy in Sydney as they were in L.A., though, and help to run down leads was not overwhelming. Every so often an officer with a little free time would discuss his findings and explain parts of the records Starsky didn't understand. The local color and customs sometimes made reading reports almost like trying to interpret Greek.

The officer he recognized as Jack Donahue ambled into the records room, smiling and nodding at Starsky. Jack had been helpful, discussing police procedure with him for several enjoyable hours and commiserating on the loss of a partner. Jack was just the sort of colorful character Starsky had heard inhabited this land. He'd introduced himself by saying he was named after "Bold Jack Donahue" himself. The American had asked who that was, and had been informed that Bold Jack was a "bushranger who used to bail up travelers on the Windsor Road," somewhere west of Sydney. After some extended conversation, Starsky finally determined that Bold Jack had been a stagecoach robber.

The policeman walked over to peer at the computer read-out. "How's it going today, mate?"

"Haven't found a damn thing, Jack." Starsky got up from his chair to stretch. "I'm beginning to think I'm looking for a needle in a haystack."

"What?" Confused, Jack looked at him sharply for a moment, then chuckled in a good-natured manner and went on. "You know, what you don't realize is that there is a lot more to this country than meets the eye, or that shows up in this bloody device. Didn't you tell me your partner was taken somewhere near Coober Pedy?" Starsky nodded. "Well, that's on the edge of the outback. Anything can happen out there. A man can die of dehydration in the dry, and drown to death in the wet. There are gold mines and opal mines and claim-jumpers and bushrangers who'll pinch a man's money and not care if he's dead when they're finished. And a lot of bodies that end up like that don't end up in computer files. You've got to get out there and talk to the people."

It made sense to Starsky, but in a country this size it sounded like an awesome task. "But this was two years ago, Jack. Who's going to remember...?"

"It'd be better than sitting around here, wouldn't it? I always find out more interviewing people than I do reading papers, and I'll wager you do, too."

"Yeah. There wasn't anybody Hutch and me couldn't find if we took to the streets long enough."

"There, see? Reading these files all day, it's a crook trip. Get out, get some air and your brain'll wake up and start working again."

"Sounds good to me, Jack. And thanks." Starsky determined that when he'd finished with the remaining files, he'd go to the American Express office and make plans to travel on from Sydney.

********

Starsky learned that the best way to get to Coober Pedy would be to fly from Sydney to the city of Adelaide, which was located in the province of South Australia. From there, he would travel overland to Coober Pedy, the closest town to where the pilot had landed. He bid goodbye to Jack Donahue and the other acquaintances he'd made since arriving in Sydney, and set out, alone once again on his quest.

Jack had given him some advice about preparing for the journey. It was late May, so the wet season was nearly over. Jack had warned to expect some bad roads, full of hazards. Starsky soon realized that what the Aussies called well-paved roads did not equal his own idea of the same. He took the Princes Highway leading out of Adelaide, but that only took him 300 kilometers along his way. Hitting the Stuart Highway, the little car he'd rented took every bump and pothole with a creaking, shaking motion, jarring him at every mile. Starsky barely noticed his own physical comfort; he worried more about the car breaking down.

The towns with unfamiliar names rolled by, Snowtown, Hallet, Crystal Brook, Port Pirie, Port Augusta, which Starsky's guidebook told him was the most northerly port in South Australia. The road led him away from the seacoast and to the north. The highway cut a zigzag course through the maze of lakes and lagoons that dotted the region.

Starsky passed a tiny settlement called Pimba, noting an area called the Woomera Prohibited Area. It struck him as odd to find this was a rocket and research base. Located in country that reminded Starsky of the southwest prairie, he'd half expected to find a wagon train rather than a modern rocket facility. Nevertheless, visitors weren't allowed into the town except during the day, due to the level of secrecy of the research base. And, once inside, travelers had to keep to the road itself and not wander around.

Starsky stopped for lunch and perused his guidebook again. Apparently, Woomera was used for the tracking of satellites, but at one time, atomic testing had been conducted in the area as well, and investigations were underway to determine if radiation illnesses in some ex-servicemen had been the result. The area was restricted due to the investigations and because of its huge uranium deposits. The land there was rich in copper and gold as well, and Starsky realized that criminals could have a field day exploiting the land's natural resources, and in the more outlying areas, make drugs to sell in the cities at the same time. He supposed that was why Kurt Flavin had chosen this area for his activities.

Coober Pedy was marked as the first town beyond the northern perimeter of the restricted area. It was supposed to be the world's largest opal-producing centre. Starsky's little car was almost out of gas when he crossed into what was supposed to be the town. He slowed to a stop, looking around, wondering if he'd missed hearing that someone had dropped the bomb while he'd had his radio turned off. What he saw resembled nothing so much as a battlefield. There were no trees, nothing but mounds of upturned earth, and what looked like abandoned mine entrances. Starsky turned off his ignition and climbed out of the car, feeling the hair rise up at the back of his neck.

He wandered around a little, not seeing anyone for at least ten minutes. Finally, he heard voices, and looking around, saw several men climbing out of one of the old mines. He hurried up to them and they smiled in greeting.

"Is this Coober Pedy?" he asked, noting that the wind was picking up, carrying great gusts of dirt with it.

'"That's right," one of the men said. "The town's underground. Keeps the dust out." He pulled an old hat on, tugging it low over his forehead. "You on walkabout?"

"Not exactly," Starsky began, setting out to explain what he was doing there. "Where can I find the local police?"

The men laughed outright at his question. It seemed there was no actual police station, but they suggested he ask at the hotel and bar to see if anyone knew of the people he was looking for.

Shown the proper entrance, Starsky descended to the hotel. It was much cooler underground, and he noted that beneath the surface, the building was quite modern. Unfortunately, no one there knew of a Kurt Flavin in the opal business, nor had seen anyone fitting Hutch's description during the previous two years. Starsky asked a lot of questions and showed his photographs of Hutch and the criminals, mentioning that they were probably drug dealers, but the townspeople had never heard of any activity like that going on nearby. Lots of private planes flew in, but they didn't recognize the description of Flavin's pilot or the man named Eddie Strouse, either. No one had heard of someone being kidnapped or held prisoner, or of an American detective being found. There had been no major reports of claim jumping or similar crimes. After two days, during which he interviewed nearly all the inhabitants of the town, Starsky had to admit defeat.

Starsky traveled extensively for the next two weeks, covering lots of ground, and ruining two complete sets of tires. He visited Anna Creek, Coward Springs, Oodnadatta, and went south again to check out Andamooka, Wirraminna, and Maree. Finally giving up on South Australia, he again hit the Stuart Highway and made for Alice Springs. People were friendly, suggesting touristy places he might want to visit, but he ignored the wild, natural beauty of the countryside and kept up the pace of his investigation, though growing sick and tired of driving over the rough roads.

Eventually, he came close to a spot everyone had told him he must see, Ayers Rock. It was like a mesa of the American southwest, only more slanted at the sides, curving up into a vast, nearly flat-topped hill. It was impressive, but from the way people had described it, Starsky had thought it would be more like Devil's Mountain that Richard Dreyfuss had molded out of mashed potatoes in "Close Encounters." The only thing he felt upon seeing it was a vast melancholy. He was one man alone, standing in the shadow of that great, silent rock. Perhaps his friend had sat in this very spot, looking up at the red-brown surface, wondering if Starsky would ever find him. But if Hutch had ever been there, the rock was the only one who knew, and it was keeping its secrets.

It was June, now, and Starsky was becoming tired. He didn't have any more ideas, and knew he couldn't cover every inch of outback by himself. He returned to Alice Springs and requested the help of the police there, but he found no clues to Hutch in that city's police files, either. The only thing he could think to do now was to return to Adelaide, look up the American Embassy, and demand an all-out search through the outback for the missing American citizen.

Starsky again set out on the Stuart Highway, this time heading south. Exhausted and hungry, he arrived at supper time in Coober Pedy and climbed out to find the hotel again. He wanted a hot meal and a bed for the night, deciding that only those items were likely to be the ones he'd find.

He made a meal of mutton stew, substantial and warm, and drank several mugs of Australian beer. He decided to get quietly drunk, and from the alcohol content of the local brew, realized it wouldn't take long. Before the night was out, he'd joined in the laughter of the men of the town who made the bar their hang-out, despite the fact that their accents were so strong he could barely follow the tall tales they told. He even stood at the piano and sang along on several verses of "Waltzing Matilda."

It was close to midnight and most of the men paid their tabs and headed for home. Starsky hated to see them go; with their noise and good humor, it had seemed less lonely to him. He was a stranger here, not even really a tourist. He didn't fit in. He was alone.

Yet, he hated to give up on the evening and go to bed. He ordered one last beer and sat drinking it at his table in the corner of the room. As he leaned back to drain the last of his mug he saw a new customer descending the stairs. It was a man dressed all in khaki, swiping at the dust covering his clothes as he walked. He went immediately to the bar and, removing his bush hat, ordered a beer.

"How've you been, mate?" the bartender asked him, summoning one more smile despite the lateness of the hour.

"This was a rocky one, George," the newcomer spoke up. "I almost lost the main propeller in that gust."

"Better be careful out there. If you crash, there'd be no finding you. The bush swallows men up."

The new customer nodded, leaning back to drain his beer. Ordering another, he turned to lean against the bar, and caught sight of Starsky sitting there.

"You don't look like you come from 'round here," he observed with a raised eyebrow.

"'That's right." Starsky wondered if this man, obviously a pilot, might be able to give him at least a small clue about where Flavin might have set up camp. If he knew anything about Hutch, it would be a complete coincidence, his coming in here now. But I guess that's the only way I'm ever going to find anything out -- coincidence. He stood, smiling, and came over to the pilot, offering to buy him a beer. "I'm an American."

"Never been there," the pilot said amiably, as he accepted the second beer. "Traveling alone are you?"

"Yes. I'm actually a cop, a detective. I'm looking for someone."

"A walloper, eh?" The man grinned at Starsky. '"The feller you're lookin' for -- does he live around here?"

Starsky shook his head. "I don't know for sure. Have you ever heard of a mine owned or worked by a guy named Kurt Flavin?"

The pilot shook his head. "No. And I know most of the places all along the way from Adelaide to Darwin. What kind of mine does he have?"

"Opal probably. But he's also into drugs -- cocaine, you know. Maybe heroin. He's from the States, and I think he moved here a couple of years ago to set up a new base of operations. I think he shipped out opals and other Australian gems and gold, and concealed his drugs in the cargo."

The pilot scratched his head. "Never heard of anything like that. But then, if a feller was doing something as illegal as that, I guess he wouldn't be telling everybody, now would he?"

Starsky managed a smile. "What's your name?"

"John Jarrett. Yours?"

The two shook hands. "Dave Starsky. Listen, I'd appreciate it if you could tell me some more places I should look. You're a pilot?"

"That's right. Bush pilot. I transport people, check on stations, things like that."

"I see." Starsky nodded to the bartender for a refill, thinking that over. "Would you be able to take me a few places? I could cover more ground from a plane than from my rental car. Besides, that old piece of tin is about shot."

John grinned knowingly. "I don't even own a car. It's useless out here. But who are you looking for so hard? This guy Flavin is a wanted man?"

"Yes. But I'm not sure what crime he's committed. And I'm actually looking for someone Flavin kidnapped."

"Who might that be?"

Starsky drew a breath. "My partner, my best friend. He was on a case, and I think Flavin brought him here."

"Recently?"

Starsky had to shake his head. Whenever he added this part of his information, usually the source dried up. "Two years ago. Almost exactly." He launched into his story about how Flavin had flown into the area near Coober Pedy with Hutch as his captive, ending with Flavin's pilot's story that they had taken Hutch off the plane. "They might have hurt him out there somewhere, left him alone in the outback or something. I don't know..." He sighed, handing some money across to the bartender. "Nice talking to you." He turned to head for his hotel room.

"Two years ago, you say?" There was an inquisitive edge to Jarrett's voice.

Starsky turned, nodding, wondering if the man were just idly curious.

"Let me understand you," Jarrett said slowly. "This larrikin, Flavin, kidnapped your partner two years ago. You think he... stranded him in the outback...?" The question was left dangling.

"Yeah. That's about it. At least, that's all I know. I've been here almost a month now, trying to find some more evidence. But there's nothing. My partner either got away or..." Looking into the astute grey eyes of this stranger, Starsky knew there was no need to voice the alternative.

John Jarrett scratched his head. "That reminds me of somethin'..." He looked thoughtful, pausing to consider carefully, counting on his fingers. "It was about this time o'year. Just finishin' the wet. And I found a man... way out in the back of beyond..."

"You found someone...?" Starsky dared not ask anything more.

"Yeah. I'd near forgot. I didn't know 'im. Nobody did. But he was hurt. So I flew him to Adelaide."

"Why to Adelaide?"

"The biggest hospital."

"I see. Tell me about him." Starsky's heart had started pounding so hard it hurt. "Wait." He pulled out his wallet and withdrew the photo of Hutch. "Is this what he looked like?"

Jarrett considered the photograph for only a few seconds, nodding. "Blond, was he? Kind of tall? Yes, that's the man."

Starsky leaned heavily on the bar; his knees wanted to give out. He shook his head, unable to believe the look of recognition on Jarrett's face. "You're... sure?"

"Yes. That's him. He was in bad shape -- unconscious, you know. And I couldn't really tell what had happened to him. I noticed him lying near some bushes as I flew over real low. I think it was his belt buckle reflecting the sunlight that caught my eye in the first place. I looked closer, realized it was somebody on the ground, and landed my plane. He needed a doctor, so I loaded him on board."

"But... he was alive? Breathing?"

"Absolutely."

Starsky didn't know what to say. He looked at Jarrett, then at the photo still clutched in his hand. Hutch's face looked back at him, eyes patient, as endearing as they always were. At last, I've found something! It was almost too much to believe. He'd stumbled across the man who had rescued Hutch. And not only had he seen him, he could state categorically that he had been alive at the time. He'd taken him to a hospital. There's still hope...! Starsky felt dizzy. Maybe it was all that beer, or maybe it wasn't.

"John," he said, grabbing the bush pilot's arm, "can you tell me where to find him?"

A shrug. "I can tell you where I took him, the name of the hospital and all that. I -- I don't know what happened to him after that."

Starsky swallowed, shutting off any further speculation. Instead, he thought of another request. "Could you... take me out to where you found him? Do you remember the place?"

"Sure. Shouldn't have changed too much. I'm my own boss, make my own schedule. Is tomorrow morning okay with you?"

Starsky nodded; he was his own boss, too. "That sounds great."

********

The next morning, Starsky met John Jarrett above ground at the hotel entrance and walked the short distance to the twin-engine plane. It didn't look much better constructed than the ancient VW Starsky had been driving around, but he climbed in anyway. The cabin was small, with seats for only four people. Starsky settled into place next to John, but craned his neck to look at the rear seats, realizing that once, two years ago, Hutch had lain back there, unconscious but still breathing, still alive. He closed his eyes as his new friend started the plane's engine, saying a little prayer that his search would end soon, that his answers would be good ones.

They didn't kill him outright. He was alive when John found him. He said he was in bad shape, but he wasn't dead. That means he could still be alive. Starsky watched out the window as the scrubby grass and bushes receded when the plane took on altitude. He hadn't allowed himself to think in such concrete terms before this. He was looking for Hutch, trying to find out what had happened to him; and he'd simply left it at that. But now, knowing that Hutch had been seen alive, he permitted himself to hope.

But that brings up all those questions Dobey and everybody else had. If Hutch is alive, why hasn't he tried to get in touch with me? There could be any number of reasons, Starsky tried to convince himself. He could have been hurt real badly and unable to tell anyone who he was and who to get in touch with... but when he was feeling better why didn't he...? Maybe he got hit on the head and it caused amnesia... He shuddered. No, amnesia was only for late night TV tearjerkers and practical jokes. Even if you were faking, I'd take you anyway, Hutch. He couldn't come up with any other answers. The strain of forcibly keeping thoughts of Hutch going quietly from unconsciousness to death made his temples throb. Where are you, Hutch? Damn it, man, when I get hold of you, there better be a damn good explanation why I haven't heard from you...

John's voice broke through the engine noise and Starsky looked sharply at the pilot, trying to understand what he'd been saying. He rubbed at his temple, wishing the headache would subside enough so he could concentrate.

"What'd you say, John?"

"I said, it's only about twenty kilometers from here that I saw him, mate." Jarrett pointed toward the east. "See that range of bushes over there, and the scrub beyond? We'll be over it in a few minutes."

Immediately, Starsky concentrated on the things he could see and hear. He followed the path of the plane, keeping his thoughts firmly in the present.

Finally, John seemed satisfied with their location, and he set the plane down. It bumped to a landing over the rocky, sand-strewn land, and Starsky had to fight his stomach's tendency to react to the motion. He was glad when Jarrett suggested they explore the area on foot.

Both men climbed out of the plane and stood peering around for a few minutes. Starsky stayed quiet, allowing the pilot to search his memory. After a short period, Jarrett nodded, then set off. Starsky followed him.

The land here was like a desert, though he'd been told in the wet season it was almost continually flooded. It was hard to imagine that now, seeing how dry it was, how the scrubby plants could barely hold on. It was rocky, sand-covered, but Starsky supposed that under the surface there were all kinds of riches; gold, uranium, opals...

And just one clue... please, to help me find him.

"There," Jarrett finally pointed, hurrying forward. "Right by that rock."

Starsky moved after him, eyes scanning the soil for any signs of the others who had been with Hutch here, despite his knowledge that after so long, no evidence of who they'd been or what they'd done would remain. He was a detective, however, and he possessed a limitless supply of hope.

Jarrett was standing in the shade of the large outcropping of rock, pointing. "He was laying here, mate, on his back. Remember I told you I caught sight of his belt buckle? It was a big one, with a palm tree on it or something. Does that sound familiar?"

"Sure does." It was a little difficult speaking past the lump in his throat, but Starsky managed. He came close to where the pilot was standing, looking down at the ground as though he expected the imprint of Hutch's body to still be there.

As if realizing what Starsky must be feeling, Jarrett lowered his voice. "He looked pretty daggy -- pretty bad, I mean. I think he'd been there overnight. It was early on in the day when I flew over. He was white as a snowcap -- I thought he was..." He didn't finish the sentence; just glanced at Starsky and then away. "There was some blood on his temple, and down over his shirt. The sleeve was torn." He closed his eyes, searching his memory.

"Was there any sign of anyone else having been here?" Starsky asked.

The pilot shook his head. '"That was what was so odd about it. I couldn't figure out how he got here. There was no camp, no supplies. Not even the tracks of a horse or a car. They must've covered them over, I guess."

"Looks that way," Starsky nodded.

Jarrett concurred. "They sure didn't think anybody'd be finding him way out here. You think they dropped him from somewhere else?"

"Yeah. They drove him out here and left him, thinking no one would ever find a thing." His voice flat, unemotional, Starsky tried to believe they were speaking of someone he didn't really know. If I let myself imagine him out here, miles from nowhere, hurt like that, I'll go nuts.

Jarrett seemed to understand. He strolled a short distance away, allowing Starsky time to stand and ponder, to walk around the area and scan for non-existent clues. At length, Starsky wandered back to the place that John had pointed out as being exactly where Hutch's unconscious body had lain.

It was nearly noon. The shadow of the rock had receded and the spot was under the full glare of the sun. Starsky checked his watch and the date leaped out at him. It was the anniversary of Hutch's disappearance. Two years ago today, exactly. Maybe that's gonna be prophetic. Starsky sank down to his haunches, then to his knees on the rough ground. He reached out, laying his hand on the surface, combing through the dirt and sand, sifting and weighing it with his fingers.

You were here. Right on this very spot. They hurt you, and brought you out here where they thought no one would ever lay eyes on you again. They left you for dead. But you were always a lot tougher than you looked, weren't you? You were still alive. And someone did find you, and took you to a hospital. Oh, God... can it possibly mean you survived? I'll do anything... pay any amount of money, go anywhere... just let me know you made it. We were gonna be together, Hutch. You had so much to live for. Let me know you believed that as much as I do, babe... You have to be alive. Or I have to find out... how you ended up. I can't stand living in this limbo anymore.

He dropped the handful of gravel he'd been holding, returning it to that lonely ground where Hutch had lain. He didn't like to think about Hutch in pain, afraid for his life, worried about what Starsky was going through back home without him... "Shit." He stood, brusquely rubbing the dirt from his hands. Jarrett noticed his tone of disgust and came over to him.

"Pretty rough, mate?"

"I've come a long way, but at least I've learned something about what happened to him."

The pilot nodded sagely. "Two years is a long time."

"Really." There didn't seem to be much else to say.

Jarrett met his gaze. "I swear, mate, he was alive when I last saw him."

"Thanks, John. You can't know how much I appreciate all you've done. Besides paying you for bringing me out here, can I give you some money for taking him to the hospital in Adelaide?" The pilot shook his head, a crooked smile on his face. "But that's a pretty long trip..."

"I've had my payment. And you put the gas in the plane this morning. Anyway, I always wondered who he was, what he was doin' out here. Now I know."

Starsky noticed that Jarrett didn't ask him to get in touch when he went to the hospital where Hutch had been taken, but he didn't mention the oversight. John obviously believed he knew the answer the American would find.

"Okay." Starsky glanced back at the place on the ground where his partner had been found. "I guess I'm ready to leave. You can tell me just one more thing -- what hospital in Adelaide?"

John Jarrett smiled, settling the bush hat more securely on his head. "It's the Pulteney Hospital, right on Pulteney Street. Not hard to find at all."

The two men turned to head back to the twin-engine plane. They climbed inside and John started the motor. As he swung his Cessna into the air, his passenger didn't look back.